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Concept: Poxviridae


Smallpox holds a unique position in the history of medicine. It was the first disease for which a vaccine was developed and remains the only human disease eradicated by vaccination. Although there have been claims of smallpox in Egypt, India, and China dating back millennia [1-4], the timescale of emergence of the causative agent, variola virus (VARV), and how it evolved in the context of increasingly widespread immunization, have proven controversial [4-9]. In particular, some molecular-clock-based studies have suggested that key events in VARV evolution only occurred during the last two centuries [4-6] and hence in apparent conflict with anecdotal historical reports, although it is difficult to distinguish smallpox from other pustular rashes by description alone. To address these issues, we captured, sequenced, and reconstructed a draft genome of an ancient strain of VARV, sampled from a Lithuanian child mummy dating between 1643 and 1665 and close to the time of several documented European epidemics [1, 2, 10]. When compared to vaccinia virus, this archival strain contained the same pattern of gene degradation as 20(th) century VARVs, indicating that such loss of gene function had occurred before ca. 1650. Strikingly, the mummy sequence fell basal to all currently sequenced strains of VARV on phylogenetic trees. Molecular-clock analyses revealed a strong clock-like structure and that the timescale of smallpox evolution is more recent than often supposed, with the diversification of major viral lineages only occurring within the 18(th) and 19(th) centuries, concomitant with the development of modern vaccination.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Virus, Vaccine, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox


The question of the origin of smallpox, one of the major menaces to humankind, is a constant concern for the scientific community. Smallpox is caused by the agent referred to as the variola virus (VARV), which belongs to the genus Orthopoxvirus. In the last century, smallpox was declared eradicated from the human community; however, the mechanisms responsible for the emergence of new dangerous pathogens have yet to be unraveled. Evolutionary analyses of the molecular biological genomic data of various orthopoxviruses, involving a wide range of epidemiological and historical information about smallpox, have made it possible to date the emergence of VARV. Comparisons of the VARV genome to the genomes of the most closely related orthopoxviruses and the examination of the distribution their natural hosts' ranges suggest that VARV emerged 3000 to 4000 years ago in the east of the African continent. The VARV evolution rate has been estimated to be approximately 2 × 10-6 substitutions/site/year for the central conserved genomic region and 4 × 10-6 substitutions/site/year for the synonymous substitutions in the genome. Presumably, the introduction of camels to Africa and the concurrent changes to the climate were the particular factors that triggered the divergent evolution of a cowpox-like ancestral virus and thereby led to the emergence of VARV.

Concepts: DNA, Gene, Genome, Africa, Vaccination, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Orthopoxvirus


Poxviruses are widespread pathogens, which display extremely different host ranges. Whereas some poxviruses, including variola virus, display narrow host ranges, others such as cowpox viruses naturally infect a wide range of mammals. The molecular bases for differences in host range are poorly understood but apparently depend on the successful manipulation of the host antiviral response. Some poxvirus genes have been shown to confer host tropism in experimental settings and are thus called host range factors. Identified host range genes include vaccinia virus K1L, K3L, E3L, B5R, C7L and SPI-1, cowpox virus CP77/CHOhr, ectromelia virus p28 and 022, and myxoma virus T2, T4, T5, 11L, 13L, 062R and 063R. These genes encode for ankyrin repeat-containing proteins, tumor necrosis factor receptor II homologs, apoptosis inhibitor T4-related proteins, Bcl-2-related proteins, pyrin domain-containing proteins, cellular serine protease inhibitors (serpins), short complement-like repeats containing proteins, KilA-N/RING domain-containing proteins, as well as inhibitors of the double-stranded RNA-activated protein kinase PKR. We conducted a systematic survey for the presence of known host range genes and closely related family members in poxvirus genomes, classified them into subgroups based on their phylogenetic relationship and correlated their presence with the poxvirus phylogeny. Common themes in the evolution of poxvirus host range genes are lineage-specific duplications and multiple independent inactivation events. Our analyses yield new insights into the evolution of poxvirus host range genes. Implications of our findings for poxvirus host range and virulence are discussed.

Concepts: Gene, Virus, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox, Poxviruses


Monkeypox (MPXV) and cowpox (CPXV) are emerging agents that cause severe human infections on an intermittent basis, and variola virus (VARV) has potential for use as an agent of bioterror. Vaccinia immune globulin (VIG) has been used therapeutically to treat severe orthopoxvirus infections but is in short supply. We generated a large panel of orthopoxvirus-specific human monoclonal antibodies (Abs) from immune subjects to investigate the molecular basis of broadly neutralizing antibody responses for diverse orthopoxviruses. Detailed analysis revealed the principal neutralizing antibody specificities that are cross-reactive for VACV, CPXV, MPXV, and VARV and that are determinants of protection in murine challenge models. Optimal protection following respiratory or systemic infection required a mixture of Abs that targeted several membrane proteins, including proteins on enveloped and mature virion forms of virus. This work reveals orthopoxvirus targets for human Abs that mediate cross-protective immunity and identifies new candidate Ab therapeutic mixtures to replace VIG.

Concepts: Immune system, Antibody, Protein, Vaccination, Immunity, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox


The orf virus, a member of poxvirus family, is a zoonotic parapoxvirus endemic in many countries, mostly seen among sheep, goats, oxen, and may be transmitted to humans. Orf virus infections may induce ulceration, papulonodular, pustular, or ecthyma lesions in the skin. Rarely, orf virus provokes extensive vasculoendothelial proliferation by encoding an apparent homolog of the mammalian vascular endothelial growth factor family of molecules. The vascular endothelial growth factor-like viral gene product is expressed early during infection and could be responsible for the induction of endothelial proliferation. Here, a 6-year-old male patient with poxvirus-induced widespread vascular angiogenesis is presented, which developed ten days after a thermal burn.

Concepts: Immune system, Inflammation, Virus, Angiogenesis, Vascular endothelial growth factor, Poxviridae, Pus, Poxviruses


In this study, five phage display antibodies (pdAbs) against ectromelia virus (ECTV) were selected from vaccinia virus (VACV)-immune phage-display library of human single chain variable fragments (scFv). ELISA demonstrated that selected pdAbs could recognize ECTV, VACV, and cowpox virus (CPXV). Atomic force microscopy visualized binding of the pdAbs to VACV. Three of the selected pdAbs neutralized variola virus (VARV) in the plaque reduction neutralization test. Western blot analysis of ECTV, VARV, VACV, and CPXV proteins indicated that neutralizing pdAbs bound orthopoxvirus 35 kDa proteins, which are encoded by the open reading frames orthologous to the ORF H3L in VACV. The fully human antibody fh1A was constructed on the base of the VH and VL domains of pdAb, which demonstrated a dose-dependent inhibition of plaque formation after infection with VARV, VACV, and CPXV. To determine the p35 region responsible for binding to neutralizing pdAbs, a panel of truncated p35 proteins was designed and expressed in Escherichia coli cells, and a minimal p35 fragment recognized by selected neutralizing pdAbs was identified. In addition, peptide phage-display combinatorial libraries were applied to localize the epitope. The obtained data indicated that the epitope responsible for recognition by the neutralizing pdAbs is discontinuous and amino acid residues located within two p35 regions, 15-19 aa and 232-237 aa, are involved in binding with neutralizing anti-p35 antibodies.

Concepts: Antibody, Protein, Amino acid, Escherichia coli, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox


Poxviruses as a group can infect a large number of animals. However, at the level of individual viruses, even closely related poxviruses display highly diverse host ranges and virulence. For example, variola virus, the causative agent of smallpox, is human-specific and highly virulent only to humans, whereas related cowpox viruses naturally infect a broad spectrum of animals and only cause relatively mild disease in humans. The successful replication of poxviruses depends on their effective manipulation of the host antiviral responses, at the cellular-, tissue- and species-specific levels, which constitutes a molecular basis for differences in poxvirus host range and virulence. A number of poxvirus genes have been identified that possess host range function in experimental settings, and many of these host range genes target specific antiviral host pathways. Herein, we review the biology of poxviruses with a focus on host range, zoonotic infections, virulence, genomics and host range genes as well as the current knowledge about the function of poxvirus host range factors and how their interaction with the host innate immune system contributes to poxvirus host range and virulence. We further discuss the evolution of host range and virulence in poxviruses as well as host switches and potential poxvirus threats for human and animal health.

Concepts: Immune system, Infectious disease, Virus, Vaccination, Innate immune system, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox


After Edward Jenner established human vaccination over 200 years ago, attenuated poxviruses became key players to contain the deadliest virus of its own family: Variola virus (VARV), the causative agent of smallpox. Cowpox virus (CPXV) and horsepox virus (HSPV) were extensively used to this end, passaged in cattle and humans until the appearance of vaccinia virus (VACV), which was used in the final campaigns aimed to eradicate the disease, an endeavor that was accomplished by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1980. Ever since, naturally evolved strains used for vaccination were introduced into research laboratories where VACV and other poxviruses with improved safety profiles were generated. Recombinant DNA technology along with the DNA genome features of this virus family allowed the generation of vaccines against heterologous diseases, and the specific insertion and deletion of poxvirus genes generated an even broader spectrum of modified viruses with new properties that increase their immunogenicity and safety profile as vaccine vectors. In this review, we highlight the evolution of poxvirus vaccines, from first generation to the current status, pointing out how different vaccines have emerged and approaches that are being followed up in the development of more rational vaccines against a wide range of diseases.

Concepts: DNA, Virus, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Cowpox, Edward Jenner


The data on the structure of conserved genes of the Old and New World orthopoxviruses and unclassified Yoka poxvirus were used for a Bayesian dating of their independent evolution. This reconstruction estimates the time when an orthopoxvirus ancestor was transferred to the North American continent as approximately 50 thousand years ago (TYA) and allows for relation of this time interval with the global climate changes (with one of the short-term warmings during the Last Ice Age). The onset of the Yoka poxvirus evolution was assessed as approximately 90TYA. Availability of a large number of genome sequences of various cowpox virus strains provided for a comprehensive analysis of the orthopoxvirus evolutionary history. Such a study is especially topical in view of the postulated role of this virus in the evolution of various orthopoxviruses, namely, as an progenitor virus. The computations have demonstrated that the orthopoxviruses diverged from the ancestor virus to form the extant species about 10TYA, while the forbear of horsepox virus separated about 3TYA. An independent evolution of taterapox, camelpox, and variola viruses commenced approximately 3.5TYA. Study of the geographic distribution areas of the hosts of these three orthopoxviruses suggests the hypothesis on the region of their origin. It is likely that these viruses first emerged in Africa, in the region of the Horn of Africa, and that the introduction of camels to East Africa induced their divergent evolution.

Concepts: Gene, Evolution, Virus, Genome, Continent, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox


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.

Concepts: Infectious disease, Vaccine, Vaccination, Vaccinia, Poxviridae, Smallpox, Biological warfare, Pandemic