Smallpox Cousin Synthesized in Lab, Raising Bioterrorism Concerns

1960s photo of public health workers examining little girl's smallpox vaccine scar
Monday, July 17, 2017

The Washington Post reports that scientists in Alberta have "used commercially available genetic material to piece together the extinct horsepox virus, a cousin of the smallpox virus that killed as many as a billion human beings before being eradicated." While the lead researcher's efforts are "aimed at developing vaccines and cancer treatments," his achievement led the former head of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Tom Frieden, to assert "the need to monitor more closely 'dual-use' experiments — research that could be used either for protective purposes or, in theory, to create a deadly pathogen." Consortium collaborator Alta Charo, who currently serves on the National Working Group for the LawSeq project, says "we are still struggling with how to manage the dual-use dilemma. How do we get the benefit of the research without the risk of it being turned against us?" Meanwhile, other researchers emphasize the greater threat of naturally evolving pathogens such as Zika and Ebola. Michael Osterholm, director of Consortium member the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), notes another aspect of the horsepox synthesis: “How many other people have done it[?] We never thought or expected it to come from a place like Alberta. It's not one of the leading universities in the world for microbiology and synthetic biology. If it came out of there, how many other places like this are also doing the same work right now?” Osterholm continues, "This has been the storm coming for years. We’ve known about it, but unfortunately, we’re not ready."