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July 19, 2017

Smallpox killed up to a billion people. These scientists just brought its long-extinct 'cousin' back to life.

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A team of scientists have recreated a synthetic version of the horsepox virus, an extinct relative of the smallpox virus, sparking debate over the appropriate use of synthetic biology to create potentially lethal diseases. 

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The smallpox virus—which, according to the Washington Post's "Speaking of Science," is the deadliest virus in human history—was eradicated in 1980, but samples of the virus remain under close watch at CDC and government facilities in Russia. For years, government officials and virologists have debated whether those samples should be destroyed. One argument against their destruction has been that, in a modern world, scientists would be able to use already published genetic sequences to create a synthetic version of the virus.

David Evans—a molecular virologist at the University of Alberta, in Canada, who led the horsepox virus research—said he hopes the discovery could lead to better vaccines and cancer therapies, and even provide a path for uncovering the origins of smallpox.

About the research

According to Science Magazine, Evans has declined to share specific details about the research while it remains unpublished. The research paper has been declined by both the journals Science and Nature Communications.

However, he did speak about the paper in November 2016 at a World Health Organization meeting. According to a report on the meeting, the research, which relied on genetic material to create a synthetic version of the horsepox virus, was approved by Canadian regulatory authorities.  

The experiment took six months and about $100,000. Tonix—a pharmaceutical company interested in developing a new smallpox vaccine using the horsepox virus as the vaccines' delivery mechanism—funded the experiment.

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While the synthetic horsepox virus is not harmful to humans, experts are divided on whether research showing how the virus, and other potentially harmful viruses, could be recreated should be forwarded.  

Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiology professor at Harvard University, expressed concern that "demonstrating this can be done" and "writing … articles about it … will get the attention of people who might want to use it for the wrong reasons." He added, "As potentially dangerous work gets cheaper and easier, it becomes harder to control for all sorts of reasons."

However, Peter Jahrling, a virologist at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), called the paper "novel" and "extremely important," and said it should be published.

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Former CDC Director Tom Frieden said the experiment raises questions about the need to monitor dual-use research, which could serve to either benefit or harm people. According to "Speaking of Science," dual-use experiments theoretically could lead to the creation of vaccines or deadly pathogens.

Frieden said, "It is a brave new world out there with the ability to re-create organisms that existed in the past or create organisms that have never existed." He added that while such advancements could lead to improvements in laboratory safety, the United States and other countries should focus on preparing for emerging pathogens that could appear naturally.

Similarly, Anthony Fauci, director of NIAID, said the experiment provides "an example of what modern technologies can do," but added, "The danger of naturally evolving microbes, like Zika, like pandemic influenza, like Ebola, that naturally evolve, are much more of a threat to civilization than the possibility that someone might be able to synthesize a microbe" (Achenbach/Sun, "Speaking of Science," Washington Post, 7/7; Branswell, STAT News, 7/7;  Kupferschmidt, Science Magazine, 7/7).   

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