Synthetic Horsepox Research Raises Questions Of Ethics and Safety : Shots - Health News Privately funded scientists made a virus related to smallpox from scratch, hoping their version might lead to a better smallpox vaccine. But critics question the need — and worry about repercussions.

Did Pox Virus Research Put Potential Profits Ahead of Public Safety?

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There was an uproar in biology recently when scientists announced they'd used bits of DNA to manufacture a pox virus. Critics said the work is dangerous. Research teams had essentially published a recipe that could help terrorists brew up deadly smallpox. So why synthesize a pox virus in the first place? NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce has this report.

NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Smallpox is special. It's the only human disease ever wiped off the face of the planet by a global vaccination campaign. The contagious, often deadly virus is now supposed to exist only in two secure labs. This is why some biosecurity experts were taken aback when scientists recently synthesized a pox virus, manufacturing it from made-to-order pieces of DNA. It was not smallpox. It was a related virus, horse pox - but still. Tom Inglesby is director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health.

TOM INGLESBY: Anything that lowers the bar for creating smallpox in the world is a dangerous path.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: Exactly how much this lowers the bar depends on who you ask. This isn't the first virus ever made from scratch. And some say the pox virus-making methods published last month are no huge technical advance. But Drew Endy disagrees.

DREW ENDY: I think it's incorrect to assert that it's a nothing burger.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's an expert on synthetic biology at Stanford University who serves on a World Health Organization committee that oversees research on smallpox.

ENDY: There are things in this paper that I wouldn't know how to do and had never been done before.



DAVID EVANS: Why on earth did you want to try and make a horse pox virus?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: That's the guy whose lab made it, David Evans at the University of Alberta, speaking at a recent conference. He said horse pox is extinct in nature. But some evidence suggested the virus might be useful as a safer smallpox vaccine. And the government still stockpiles vaccine in case of a bioterror attack.


EVANS: So we were wondering if we could find out more about this virus. But the challenge is that there was one stock of it, which was unobtainable.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: One specimen that was unobtainable, unavailable for investigation.


EVANS: And so we thought, well, could we have a stab at trying to make that?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: But why was the one specimen of natural horse pox virus off limits? It's held by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Evans told me he contacted the CDC. But he said once it became clear that he was working with a company, and there was a commercial interest in the virus, there were problems.

EVANS: I didn't want to sort of push my connections and try and get the virus if it was going to cause some difficulty. So we realized that it was probably not accessible that way.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: When I called the CDC, however, that agency said it often works with companies that are developing new tests, treatments and vaccines. It says back in 2014, they told Evans what paperwork he'd need to do to get the virus. Evans replied that he was working with a company that would probably be the ones to follow up. But no one followed up. The CDC says they heard nothing back. So I asked Evans, why did you not pursue this? He said the CDC would've given him the virus, but he had concerns about its uncertain past. It was collected from a sick Mongolian horse in the 1970s. He says that meant some long-forgotten restriction on sharing might pop up later and foil efforts to commercialize the virus as a vaccine.

Evans says he thought he discussed this with a company that paid him to synthesize the virus. But its CEO told me no. In fact, back then, the company had no idea the CDC sample existed. And if they'd known it was potentially available, that would've been preferable to setting out on a virus-making project. So the natural virus was available. The company would have been interested. But nonetheless, the virus got made from scratch. And Evans says it will truly revolutionize his field.

EVANS: You know, someone had to bite the bullet and do this. But now that I've done it, my colleagues in this field can go forward and do their experiments, right?

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says labs like his could design made-to-order pox viruses to fight diseases like cancer. But others say, wait. It's not just scientists who are affected by this. Anything that would make it easier for someone with bad intentions to make smallpox could potentially impact all the people of the world. David Relman is a microbiologist at Stanford University.

DAVID RELMAN: We shouldn't be leaving individuals to make these decisions on their own, which is essentially what we did here.

GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says researchers have known for years that someone could theoretically make a pox virus from scratch. He thinks there should've been a much broader public debate before someone actually did it.

Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.

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