Designer pathogensStep-by-step horsepox study intensifies dual-use research debate

Published 24 January 2018

The publication last week of a research paper offering a manual for re-creating an orthopoxvirus has been harshly criticized by both scientists and biosecurity experts as reckless and dangerous. The research demonstrates the potential to recreate the virus that causes smallpox—one of the greatest scourges the world has ever faced and eradicated. “The risks posed by the publication of methods that could ease the pathway for synthesizing smallpox should have been carefully weighed from the outset,” says one expert. Analysts say that the publication further accentuates the need for urgent global dialogue to develop clear norms and actions for reducing biological risks posed by advances in technology. “As governmental oversight continues to lag behind biotechnology breakthroughs, academic and private stakeholders conducting, funding, and publishing research - as well as those developing new technologies – also must take responsibility for mitigating risk,” says the expert.

We haven’t described anything that isn’t well-known in the field.”

That’s how David Evans, professor of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Alberta, defends his latest study involving potentially dangerous research published recently in PLOS One.

The study, titled, “Construction of an infectious horsepox virus vaccine from chemically synthesized DNA fragments,” has caused a stir because it offers a step-by-step account of how Evans and his team recreated the horsepox virus (HPX) using synthesized DNA fragments based on HPX and vaccinia virus genomes. The virus was then used to develop a novel vaccinia vaccine tested in mice.

Pathway to smallpox?
The work generated criticism from global biosecurity experts who say that offering a manual for re-creating an orthopoxvirus is an inherently dangerous proposition. They fear being that Evans and his team have offered rogue states, terrorists, or others a how-to guide to recreating the world’s most dangerous orthopoxvirus—smallpox.

Also read:

· “Ban on deadly pathogen research lifts, but controversy remains,” HSNW, 15 January 2018

· “U.S. ends 3-year ban on research involving enhanced-lethality viruses,” HSNW, 20 December 2017

· Jenna E. Gallegos and Jean Peccoud, “DNA has gone digital – what could possibly go wrong?” HSNW, 15 December 2017

· “Synthetic biology and bioengineering: Opportunities and risks,” HSNW 27 November 2017

· “Lax policies governing dual-use research, scientists unaware of research’s biosecurity implications,” HSNW, 15 September 2017

· Eric van der Helm, “Biosecurity and synthetic biology: it is time to get serious,” HSNW, 1 September 2017

· “Identifying vulnerabilities posed by synthetic biology,” HSNW, 25 August 2017

· “Making gene editing safer,” HSNW, 24 July 2017

This is the first time an orthopoxvirus has even been synthesized, which means there’s now a new pathway for redeveloping the smallpox virus even though it’s eradicated in nature,” said Greg Koblentz, the deputy director of the biodefense graduate program at George Mason University, in interview with CIDRAP. Besides laboratory samples maintained by the United States and Russia, smallpox cannot be found in the world.

Elizabeth Cameron, the vice president of global biological policy and programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), issued a statement calling for dialogue to develop clear norms for reducing the biological risks posed by such research. “It’s clear that the capability to create and modify biological agents is outpacing governmental oversight and public debate,” she wrote.