Scientists warn that thanks to a controversial viral synthesis, smallpox could once again wreak its havoc on the globe. It’s been described as the deadliest disease in human history claiming 500 million lives in the 20th century before being eradicated.
Scientists are now concerned that controversial experiments in which researchers recreated a related horsepox virus from scratch could make its deadly cousin equally replicable. Researchers at the University of Alberta caused quite a stir last year when news broke that they had pieced together the extinct horsepox virus (which does not pose a direct threat to humans) by assembling fragments of DNA purchased over the internet for around $100,000.
According to Science Alert, by stitching these disparate sections of genetic material together, the researchers reconstituted what they claim is the largest virus assembled to date using chemically synthesized DNA. But not everybody was happy about it. While the purpose of the exercise was to investigate how the synthetic horsepox virus could help humans research safer new forms of smallpox vaccines, critics of the research say it serves as a dangerous example of how to engineer deadly viruses that could harm people, like smallpox. But smallpox has already been eradicated, so what’s the real reason these researchers are playing mad scientists with these viruses?
“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,” former head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Tom Frieden, told The Washington Post in July.
The critics of the horsepox study are still skeptical even after the research has been published. They argue that existing safe vaccines are already available, citing Modified Vaccinia Ankara (MVA). Some 28 million doses of which are already stockpiled by the US government. A Japanese vaccine called LC16m8 is also in existence.
Infectious disease specialist Thomas Inglesby from Johns Hopkins University called the publication of the paper “a serious mistake.” He didn’t mince words when saying those who conducted this study have now done something irreversible. “The world is now more vulnerable to smallpox,” he told Science Mag.
These kind of critiques are par for the course when it comes to so-called “dual-use research.” Dual-use research refers to scientific experiments that stand to improve our understanding for a positive outcome, but which could also be abused to create harm and danger. “If anyone wants to recreate another poxvirus, they now have the instructions to do that in one place,” said virologist Andreas Nitsche from the Robert Koch Institute in Germany.
“We are invested as a research laboratory in taking that same technology and applying it to other poxviruses,” virologist David Evans explained in a press release. Evans, who is listed as co-inventor on the patent for this synthetic version of horsepox, called vaccine candidate TNX–801, has previously expressed some ambivalence about whether his reconstituted virus research could be used for the wrong reasons. “Have I increased the risk by showing how to do this? I don’t know,” he told Science Mag last year. “Maybe yes. But the reality is that the risk was always there.”
Another aim of the research is to show just how far virus recombination and biotechnology at large have leaped forward in the past couple of decades.
According to the World Health Organization, the last natural case of smallpox was in 1977 and the disease has been eradicated since 1980. So why, after almost 40 years of eradication would scientists need to create another vaccine for a disease that doesn’t infect anyone anymore?
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