Recreating deadly diseases with mail-order DNA: Here’s how.

Science reports on a group of researchers who recreated an extinct cousin of smallpox – one of the deadliest and most-weaponized diseases on Earth – by using simple techniques and $100,000 of mail-order supplies:

A group led by virologist David Evans of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, says it has synthesized the horsepox virus, a relative of smallpox, from genetic pieces ordered in the mail. Horsepox is not known to harm humans—and like smallpox, researchers believe it no longer exists in nature; nor is it seen as a major agricultural threat. But the technique Evans used could be used to recreate smallpox, a horrific disease that was declared eradicated in 1980. “No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox,” says virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany.

David Evans acknowledges that the research falls in the category of dual-use research, which could be used for good or bad. “Have I increased the risk by showing how to do this? I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe yes. But the reality is that the risk was always there.”

Evans discussed the unpublished work in November 2016 at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva, Switzerland. (Variola is the official name of the virus that causes smallpox.) A report from that meeting, posted on WHO’s website in May, noted that Evans’s effort “did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skills, significant funds or significant time.”

Also little noticed was a press release issued by Tonix, a pharmaceutical company headquartered in New York City with which Evans has collaborated, which also mentioned the feat. Tonix says it hopes to develop the horsepox virus into a human smallpox vaccine that is safer than existing vaccines, which cause severe side effects in a small minority of people. Evans says it could also serve as a platform for the development of vaccines against other diseases, and he says poxvirus synthesis could also aid in the development of viruses that can kill tumors, his other area of research.

Nicholas Evans, the bioethicist, thinks that new rules need to be put in place given the state of the science. “Soon with synthetic biology … we’re going to talk about viruses that never existed in nature in the first place,“ he says. “Someone could create something as lethal as smallpox and as infectious as smallpox without ever creating smallpox.“

They hope their techniques could help make better vaccines. But there’s definitely a dark side to this research.