The smallpox virus was responsible for millions upon millions of deaths and plenty more ruined lives ever since it first emerged several thousand years ago. Thanks to a worldwide vaccination program, it was all but wiped out, with no naturally occurring cases of it taking place since 1977.
Despite the fact that the only surviving samples of it are locked up in the world’s most secure biomedical research facilities, the virus is making headlines again. Scientists in Canada have used genetic material – the type commercially available for purchase – to synthetically manufacture something called the horsepox virus.
As the name suggests, this virus is closely related to the smallpox virus. So why would someone want to effectively build such a pathogen from scratch?
First off, the synthetic virus is harmless, at least to humans. The construction of the virus received approval from the authorities for their work – they aren’t forging diseases in the lab with reckless abandon.
Part of the motivation for conducting this curious virus-building experiment was, admittedly, because it was considered to be near-impossible to synthesize a pox virus in a laboratory setting. Although the research has not yet been published in a peer-review journal, this viral reconstruction will certainly be regarded as a groundbreaking breakthrough if verified.
The University of Alberta’s primary motivation for the research, however, appears to be in order to test vaccines against smallpox.
A group convened by the World Health Organization (WHO) a couple of years back suggested that, despite the fact that it has been officially eliminated, anyone with the right skill set could manufacture the smallpox virus in a laboratory and release it into a population again. Therefore, researchers should get to work on coming up with new vaccines for it.
This is why the horsepox vaccine was just recreated; it’s genetically similar enough to smallpox that vaccines for the latter could be tested out on it.
Rather remarkably, this synthetic horsepox costs just $10,000 to make. Although laws restrict people’s access to smallpox genes for rather obvious reasons, horsepox doesn’t fall under the same risk category. Using these DNA scraps sourced from various institutions and companies, this team of maverick virologists managed to essentially stitch it together and culture it in a lab.
Far from just being used to test new vaccines, the team hope that it will shed some light on the origins of the original smallpox vaccine. The virus used in the original vaccine was, unsurprisingly, called “vaccinia”. First used in 1796 by Edward Jenner, a UK doctor, it’s not clear where the vaccinia virus came from.
Although it was first thought to be from cowpox, horsepox was also suspected to be a candidate. This new research will help to confirm or reject this hypothesis.