A study, which has yet to be peer reviewed, described an experiment that involved infecting human ACE2-(hACE2) transgenic mice with a mutated strain of SARS-CoV-2 related pangolin coronavirus. The scientists involved with the study – called ‘Lethal Infection of Human ACE2-Transgenic Mice Caused by SARS-CoV-2-related Pangolin Coronavirus GX_P2V(short_3UTR)’ – conducted it to assess the virus’ ability to cause illness in the modified mice. The scientists found that the virus had a 100 percent mortality rate in all mice infected with the illness, likely caused by late-stage brain infection. While the study is significant because it showed how fatal a coronavirus can be when a person is infected, there are several issues surrounding the study. The study is also a part of China’s continued shaping of the narrative on how COVID-19 originated from pangolins but there is no way to independently verify the claim.
The ten scientists that co-authored and participated in the study came from three organizations – two universities and one hospital – located in Beijing and Nanjing. Most of the scientists (seven) came from the Beijing University of Chemical Technology’s (BUCT) Advanced Innovation Center for Soft Matter Science and Engineering. Another scientist that participated in the study came from Nanjing University’s State Key Laboratory of Pharmaceutical Biotechnology. The remaining two scientists came from the Fifth Medical Center of the PLA General Hospital’s Research Center for Clinical Medicine.
The scientists divided the study into two parts, the first part determined if the virus can infect genetically modified mice. The second part involved infecting another group of mice with the virus to measure how the mice’ tissue responded to the disease. The authors decided to clone a mutant version of the GX_P2V (GX_P2V(short_3UTR)) to get a genetically identical clone for the experiments. The reason why the scientists decided to specifically study a mutant they isolated from early iterations of the part GX_P2V is due to the lack of research around their adaptive mutations in cell cultures. The cloning process resulted in eight viral clones that shared four identical mutations, but the scientists chose the seventh clone (GX_P2V C7) to measure the viral pathogenicity in the mice. Regarding the mice, the scientists developed them using a model that expressed hACE2 controlled by a synthetic promoter using random integration technology created by Beijing SpePharm Biotechnology Company.
The first part of the experiment involved scientists infecting 12 mice divided into three groups, four infected with the mutated strain of GX_P2V C7, four injected with same dosage of inactivated virus. The remaining four mice were injected with an unnamed placebo that acted as a control group for the experiment. The four mice the scientists injected with the live version of virus died within seven to eight days after exposure to the virus that equaled a rate of 100 percent. Scientists used the same infection method to infect three separate groups of eight similarly modified mice for the second part of the experiment. However, scientists dissected four randomly selected mice from each group on days three and six to analyze the amount and concentration of viral RNA.
They detected significant amounts of viral RNA in the brain, eyes, lungs, trachea, and turbinate of the infected mice. However, the scientists did not detect any viral RNA in other organs such as the hearts, intestines, livers, or stomachs in the group of infected mice. The scientists detected the most significant viral loads in both the mice’s lung and brain tissue during dissections on days three and six with a slight increase in day six. Regarding the brain tissue, the authors detected minimum amounts of the virus in the tissue on day three but found a significantly larger concentration on day six in all four mice. The scientists believe that the severe brain infection seen during the infection’s later stages caused the death of the mice. They observed that the mice had visible shrunken neurons in the cerebral cortex in the four mice dissected on day three. The remaining mice dissected on day six had focal lymphocytic infiltration around the mice’s blood vessels in addition to the shrunken neurons.
The authors also found massive amounts of antigens in the day six mice’s brain tissue during staining tests. The findings from the tests aligned with scientist’s findings of viral RNA loads in both brain and lung tissue. However, the scientists noted only slight decreases or increases in pro- and anti-inflammatory factors and their associated proteins in brain and lung tissue when compared to the control group. The group stated that their analysis showed that the mutated coronavirus infection did not directly lead to severe inflammatory reactions in the mice. Their findings supported a February 2023 study led by Shi Zhengli ??? that used the original GX_P2V virus to infect two groups of different hACE2 mouse models. The findings also corroborate a December 2023 study undertaken by most of the same scientists involved in this study that involved golden hamsters instead of mice.
Issues with Study
While the study is significant because it shows how a pangolin related SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus can mutate to become 100 percent fatal to humans, there are several issues with the study. The most significant issue is the study’s reference of and tying of the two coronaviruses mentioned in the study to COVID-19. The reference to the viruses’ relationship to COVID-19 is of particular interest since similar language is found in both the February and December 2023 studies cited by the study. Specifically, the two studies have language – either the first sentence or first paragraph – tying the variants to COVID-19 or referencing how it caused the pandemic. However, similar language is also found in three additional studies the authors cited throughout the article. The references are found in similar parts of the articles (the first sentences and paragraphs in the abstract and introduction – as the 2023 and 2024 articles. The only two articles that do not mention the connection are the 2008 and the October 2019 research papers the scientists also referenced in their report. However, the reason why is due to both studies were published before the pandemic began in late 2019/early 2020.
The reason the authors included the references is part of China’s attempt to control the narrative surrounding the origin of COVID-19 and prevent the China from being tied to the cause. The Chinese government increased its control over research into the origins of the virus since 2020 through various means. One of these means is to control the content of the study produced by scientists into any aspect of coronavirus research. In 2020, Chinese leader Xi Jinping ordered that any research into the virus must receive approval from a task force under the supervision of the State Council. The order prohibited universities, medical institutes, or businesses from publishing any data or research related to COVID-19 and was more stringent than previous orders released by the government. The order gave significant power to the propaganda and public opinion teams to influence and guide the research paper’s contents to eliminate anything that would go against the official narrative. The information would exclude any indication or hint that COVID-19 came from Wuhan’s Institute of Virology or that it had a man-made origin. The teams would change the information to reflect China’s narrative that COVID-19 originated through the illegal trade of Pangolins.
Another issue with the study is the scientists that participated and authored the report. The authors from either BUCT or Nanjing University do not have any biography pages on the university’s or research center’s websites. However, the authors have numerous research papers in international databases and directories that state they are associated with both the research institutes and universities. In addition to the eight scientists, two personnel from one of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) research centers also participated in the study. Chen Weiwei and Luo Shengdong are PLA Joint Logistic Support Force (JLSF) officers from the Fifth Medical Center of PLA General Hospital’s Research Center for Clinical Medicine. Chen Weiwei’s participation in the study is notable because of the positions she holds, area of medicine she specializes in, and experience responding to epidemics. Chen is a Senior Colonel (brigadier general equivalent) in the JLSF and is the head technician for the Institute of Infectious Diseases at the Fifth Medical Center of PLA General Hospital. She also served as a delegate for the Beijing area during the 14th National People’s Congress held in March 2023.
Regarding Chen’s area of medical expertise, she has a background in both clinical immunology and cellular immunotherapy. Her research area focuses on how chronic hepatitis B infections damage the body’s immune system, specifically to dendritic cells. However, Chen also has significant experience in pandemic response due to her being a part of the group of PLA personnel that assisted Sierra Leone during the pandemic from 2019 to 2022. She worked with local health authorities to jointly develop a set of early warning detection indicators for COVID-19, organized emergency drills, and improved detection efficiencies.
The reason for Chen’s participation in the study is due to the Chinese government placing the PLA as focal point of all aspects of coronavirus research. The PLA was one of the main organizations that responded when the COVID-19 pandemic began in December 2019, which included research into the virus. Furthermore, the government also gave grants to Chinese scientists and institutions to research the origins of the virus in southern China that are affiliated with the PLA. However, the PLA personnel acted in a double role as legitimate researchers and scientists but also as monitors for the various experiments they are apart of. They would pass any information that would be concern to or alert the government task force that the experiment may contain data that would show China’s complicity in creating the virus. The personnel would also be another influence on the other scientists to include verbiage that matches the government’s narrative of how COVID-19 began.
However, it should be noted that Chen is not the only senior JSLF officer that participated in a pangolin coronavirus study. Hou Jun, the deputy chief technician of the Institute of Infectious Diseases at the Fifth Medical Center of PLA General Hospital, also participated alongside Luo Shengdong and Mao Panyong in the December 2023 study. Jun’s, Luo’s, and Mao’s involvement in a different research paper into the coronaviruses illustrate that the Chinese government use the PLA for both legitimate research and monitoring purposes.