The De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox Virus: Implications for Biosecurity and Recommendations for Preventing the Reemergence of Smallpox
Health security | 25 Aug 2017
In March 2017, the American biotech company Tonix announced that a Canadian scientist had synthesized horsepox virus as part of a project to develop a safer vaccine against smallpox. The first de novo synthesis of an orthopoxvirus, a closely related group of viruses that includes horsepox and the variola virus that causes smallpox, crosses an important Rubicon in the field of biosecurity. The synthesis of horsepox virus takes the world one step closer to the reemergence of smallpox as a threat to global health security. That threat has been held at bay for the past 40 years by the extreme difficulty of obtaining variola virus and the availability of effective medical countermeasures. The techniques demonstrated by the synthesis of horsepox have the potential to erase both of these barriers. The primary risk posed by this research is that it will open the door to the routine and widespread synthesis of other orthopoxviruses, such as vaccinia, for use in research, public health, and medicine. The normalization and globalization of orthopoxvirus synthesis for these beneficial applications will create a cadre of laboratories and scientists that will also have the capability and expertise to create infectious variola virus from synthetic DNA. Unless the safeguards against the synthesis of variola virus are strengthened, the capability to reintroduce smallpox into the human population will be globally distributed and either loosely or completely unregulated, providing the foundation for a disgruntled or radicalized scientist, sophisticated terrorist group, unscrupulous company, or rogue state to recreate one of humanity’s most feared microbial enemies. The reemergence of smallpox-because of a laboratory accident or an intentional release-would be a global health disaster. International organizations, national governments, the DNA synthesis industry, and the synthetic biology community all have a role to play in devising new approaches to preventing the reemergence of smallpox.
* Data courtesy of Altmetric.com