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U.S. Did Not Weaponize Coronavirus, Despite Russian Claims

A colorized electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, indicated in yellow, cultured in the lab. (NIAID-RML/AP)
A colorized electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, indicated in yellow, cultured in the lab. (NIAID-RML/AP)
Gennady Onischenko

Gennady Onischenko

Academic and former Russian Health Minister

“At the Boston University … a weaponized recipe [of coronavirus] was created.”


A top Russian scientist claimed on October 20 that researchers at Boston University had “weaponized” the coronavirus behind the COVID-19 pandemic.

On his talk show at state-owned Radio Sputnik, the country's former health minister, Gennady Onischenko, a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences , cited a study that created a hybrid of the original virus and its highly contagious variant, Omicron. He said:

“At the Boston University … a weaponized recipe [of coronavirus] was created. This is an excellent proof … that we need to demand complete clarity on the chemical and biological weapons convention. We should utilize this to ask the Americans what exactly they have been doing in Ukraine.”

False claims about purported U.S. bioweapon labs in Ukraine have been a recurring Russian propaganda narrative, and they have been widely debunked, including by

That hasn’t stopped the Kremlin's propagandists from rolling out fresh versions whenever an opportunity arises. And they got a new one with pre-release of the Boston University study on the internet October 14 before it was peer-reviewed.

As the scientific journal Nature described it, the goal of the research was to understand what makes the Omicron variant less deadly (though more transmissible) than the original strain:

“When researchers at Boston University (BU) in Massachusetts inserted a gene from the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 into a strain of the virus from the beginning of the pandemic, they were trying to understand why Omicron causes mild disease.”

Problem is, it was easy to sensationalize the study results. Enter the British tabloid, The Daily Mail, which published a predictably tabloidish story with a ghoulish (and long) headline:

“EXCLUSIVE: 'This is playing with fire – it could spark a lab-generated pandemic': Experts slam Boston lab where scientists have created a new deadly Covid strain with an 80% kill rate.”

This was picked up by other media, including Fox News.

In Russia, the state-owned Rossia-24 TV channel reported that the United States under the pretense of medical research had created a new biological weapon.

The reports from other Russian state news agencies and TV channels spread the same narrative. The popular channel NTV spun a conspiracy about the financial windfall the U.S. would reap from “yet another even more horrible” coronavirus.

In the U.S., Boston University defended the study, saying it was cleared by biosafety reviewers and conducted in high-containment BSL-3 facilities at the school’s National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories.

The school pointedly emphasized that the study did not constitute so-called “gain-of-function” research, a controversial approach that can make viruses more pathogenic as a way to explore potential defenses in advance of an outbreak.

The experiment showed that the hybrid virus killed 8 of 10 infected mice, while the original strain killed all 8 infected mice. None of the mice infected with the Omicron strain died.

Ronald B. Corley, director of the NEIDL, said news reports seized on that 80 percent mortality statistic. “This was a statement taken out of context for the purposes of sensationalism, and it totally misrepresents not only the findings but [also] the purpose of the study,” he said.

The university’s refutation didn’t prevent a debate in the scientific community, with some questioning both the study and the way it was released prior to peer review. Others noted that prior studies had created similar viruses, and so had nature.

“Florian Krammer, a virologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, believes the experiment is less concerning because similar hybrid SARS-CoV-2 variants have already emerged naturally and later faded into the background,” Science magazine reported. “‘Mother Nature did it already a while ago IN HUMANS and nobody cared,’” he tweeted.