Scientists piece together extinct horsepox virus, raising biosecurity concerns

"Bringing back an extinct virus that is related to smallpox, that's a pretty inflammatory situation," said virologist Paul Keim.
By Brooks Hays   |   July 11, 2017 at 12:09 PM
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July 11 (UPI) -- Lab scientists in Canada at the University of Alberta have synthesized horsepox, an extinct relative of the smallpox virus, using segments of mail-order DNA. The feat has raised biosecurity concerns, as well as questions about the costs and benefits of risky research.

Horsepox has been extinct for some time, and the smallpox virus was declared eradicated in 1980. Although the revived virus cannot infect humans, the breakthrough could inspire the development of new smallpox strains.

Scientists responsible for the research claim their work could inspire a new smallpox vaccine, as well as a virus-based cancer treatment.

But the researchers also said they wanted to prove synthesizing smallpox de novo was possible. According to some scientists, such a justification is problematic.

"The important decision going forward is whether research with high biosafety or biosecurity risks should be pursued with a justification of demonstrating that something dangerous is now possible. I don't think it should," Tom Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote in a blog post. "Creating new risks to show that these risks are real is the wrong path. At the very least, it's a serious issue needing serious discussion."

The University of Alberta scientists acknowledged to the Washington Post that their work, should it be published, could be interpreted as sharing "instructions for manufacturing a pathogen."

No journal has yet accepted the work for publication.

The Canadian researchers reportedly took all the necessary regulatory steps before conducting their work, but scientists have questioned whether regulators fully appreciated the risks and broader ethical implications of the experimentation.

Given the global nature of the risks involved, Inglesby believes research proposals need to pass more rigorous international vetting process.

"There clearly needs to be an international component to these policies," Inglesby wrote. "We need agreed-upon norms that will help guide countries and their scientists regarding work that falls into this category, and high-level dialogue regarding the necessary role of scientific review, guidance, and regulation for work that falls into special categories of highest concern."

Paul Keim, who studies anthrax at Northern Arizona University, offered a similar assessment.

"Bringing back an extinct virus that is related to smallpox, that's a pretty inflammatory situation," Keim told Science. "There is always an experiment or event that triggers closer scrutiny, and this sounds like it should be one of those events where the authorities start thinking about what should be regulated."

Despite the criticism, scientists at the University of Alberta say their work is essential for the development of new vaccines. They hope the study of horsepox will help them understand how the smallpox vaccine was first created in the 18th century.

"This is the most successful vaccine in human history, the foundation of modern immunology and microbiology, and yet we don't know where it came from," lead researcher David Evans said. "There is a huge, interesting academic question here."

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