Smallpox has killed about 500 million people in the last 100 years. WHO – the World Health Organization – has gotten rid of the virulent variola virus, and there are only two samples of it in the entire world, in the US and Russia. However, we have heard that versions of this disease have been created.
How did this happen?
Professor Gregory Koblentz, who is a biofense expert at George Mason University, talks about this development as being concerning. He has given us insight into this problem: “What has been kind of concerning of late is there is this Canadian scientist who was funding for an American biotech company has synthesized and created in his lab two viruses related to smallpox. Back in 2017, they synthesized the horsepox virus, which was a virus that went extinct sometime in the 1980s.” He then proceeds to say that they got this virus in order to study it and to synthesize it because it did not exist anymore. And this year, they managed to synthesize an orthopoxvirus, which belongs to the smallpox family.
We have a bigger problem here than the virus itself
The problem is that the precedent that this set is worrying, even more than creating the disease. The problem stands in normalizing the synthesis of orthopoxviruses, making it something normal for research, when, in fact, it is very dangerous. This thing also invites other labs to proceed with the same kind of work – creating viruses for research. The only hope is that if scientists want to do this, they will need to be able to obtain the synthetic DNA that is required in order to build up the viral genome in the lab.
Nora Reynolds is a major in biology and a minor in Biological Basis of Behavior, writing about science in general. She also likes to try new gadgets and sports about the AI new era.