Antimicrobial Agents and Infectious Diseases

Extinct Virus Re-Created to Improve Human Health Raises Ethical and Safety Concerns

An extinct virus called horsepox – a relative of the smallpox virus that was eradicated worldwide in 1980 – has been recreated by scientists in a lab at the University of Alberta in Canada.  It was brought back to serve as a vector for cancer vaccines and to create a newer, better smallpox vaccine, but its re-emergence has sparked controversy about the implications of synthetic biology for warfare and human safety.

The team was led by Dr. David Evans, and the horsepox he and his colleagues created is not a threat to the health of human beings or even horses.  It is not even the first virus synthetically recreated in a laboratory.  That honor goes to a poliovirus put together by Eckard Wimmer at the State University of New York at Stony Brook in 2002.  What is scaring everyone is how easy it was to do and how little it cost (around $100,000 plus labor).

Evans is a member of a World Health Organization (WHO) advisory committee that reviews applications to do smallpox-related research, and said he has warned the committee for many years that the technology was there.

“Really, nobody in the field is surprised about [this]…This technology is quite possible, and my sense is that we need to just accept that and move on,” said Evans.

Evans was asked to bring back horsepox by a pharmaceutical company called Tonix, that wanted to use it to deliver a more effective smallpox vaccine.  The company funded the project.  Evans, who is vice dean of research at the University of Alberta, sought and received approval from the university to do the work; but there is some question about whether it would have been given a green light in the United States.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that, in the U.S., the proposal would have gone through more approval processes and might have been stopped.  These levels of approval are required for research that might cause a security threat, and the delays have been hotly debated in the United States.

The controversy is usually referred to as DURC – dual use research of concern – and is put into play to scrutinize legitimate scientific inquiries into pathogens that could be used as biological weapons.  The debate began in 2011 when a Dutch scientists using U.S. government funding developed an H7N9 bird flu virus that could spread easily among ferrets.  Ferrets are used in human flu research because viruses that can infect them can infect people.

Marc Lipsitch, professor of epidemiology at Harvard University, was an outspoken critic of the flu research and has actively pursued ways to restrict work that could be used to threaten the human race ever since.  He was less concerned about Evans’ work than the fact that the world now knows about it.

“Demonstrating that this can be done, and then writing newspaper articles about it and Science magazine articles, will get the attention of people who might want to use it for the wrong reasons and they might have never known [it could be done],” said Lipsitch.

The horsepox work has been turned down for publication by two journals so far, and Evans is worried about how much detail he should include in the manuscript.

“I don’t want to put in detailed instructions on how to do this.  If you’re knowledgeable in the field, you’ll know enough to replicate it; and if you’re not knowledgeable in the field, you probably shouldn’t be doing it anyway, right?” he said.

Lipsitch remains concerned less about work that is funded by the National Institutes of Health than work done outside of the U.S. or with private money.

“As potentially dangerous work gets cheaper and easier, it becomes harder to control for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that the legal reach of government is greater for things that they finance than things that they don’t finance,” Lipsitch concluded.

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1 Comment

Eulices Rivera Torres

2017-07-11 15:55:19

I think, this type of technology is better when is used for the right purpose, but when this goes in a different way the technology is extremely dangerous. And, we also need to remember, that the viruses are not so harmless when they lock in a laboratory, but also there represents a big treat for us, when the security or the people in charge of the project do not take the maximum requirement to manipulate this organism. We need to think if is worthy to bring virus just for commercial purposes. If the idea of this project is with a social or scientific founding, we can keep thinking is good, but if not we need to recociderer.