In bioterror news, two Canadian scientists just taught everyone with a knack for reading scientific articles how to make smallpox. They published what is practically a step-by-step guide. You can find the actual article still online right here.
Let’s run through a brief history of smallpox and the associated vaccines. It’s actually pretty interesting stuff.
Smallpox absolutely ravaged the world in older times. It was a leading medical and life expectancy issue plaguing the entire world. We have largely eradicated smallpox worldwide. The only two known viruses left alive are heavily guarded in US and in Russia.
In 1796, national hero Edward Jenner discovered the first cure [vaccine] for smallpox. He discovered that milkmaids who originally caught cowpox never contracted smallpox. This effectively showed that the milkmaids developed a resistance to the “pox” virus through cowpox that eventually could fight off a systemic smallpox infection. In short, getting sick with cowpox was a vaccine against future smallpox. Jenner’s used this insight to create the first vaccine, beginning the fight against the smallpox pandemic.
Nowadays, we don’t use cowpox in the vaccines. However, we do use another “pox” virus called the Vaccinia Virus. But we don’t really use the vaccine at all because we eradicated Smallpox in 1980 due to a coordinated worldwide vaccination effort.
The “family” of smallpox is the Poxviridae family. This is also just called the poxvirus family. One of the 4 subparts of this family (genus) is the “orthopoxvirus”. All of these viruses I mentioned (Cowpox, Smallpox, Vaccinia Virus, Horsepox) are members of the overarching “Orthopoxvirus” genus of viruses. So, they are all very similar.
So, in short, these viruses are all not just in the same family, but in the same genus. This is why vaccinia virus and cowpox virus provided protection against future exposure to the smallpox virus. A few minor changes and one could reasonably switch between the types of viruses.
Which is why what these Canadian scientists did is absolutely insane.
Virologist David Evans at the University of Alberta in Canada and his research associate Ryan Noyce recreated a member of the pox family (horsepox, to be specific) that should have been left dead.
Let’s take apart their study so we know what we are dealing with.
The Study: How Two Canadian Scientists Just Taught Everyone How To Make Smallpox
Edward Jenner and his contemporaries believed that his variolae vaccinae originated in horses and molecular analyses show that modern vaccinia virus (VACV) strains share common ancestry with horsepox virus (HPXV).
The scientists are discussing Jenner’s findings that cowpox and other members of the “pox” viruses originated in horses. As I mentioned above, we are currently using vaccinia virus (which they call VACV) as the primary anti-smallpox vaccine.
We know from analysis from the different pox viruses that they are similar in nature, so the “common ancestor” of horsepox is close in similarities to vaccinia virus, which is similar to smallpox. They are all close relatives to one another.
Given concerns relating to the toxicity of modern VACV vaccines, we asked whether an HPXV-based vaccine might provide a superior alternative.
This is flat out wrong. Not many people worry about the current smallpox vaccine. We already have a safe smallpox vaccine using the vaccinia virus mentioned above. We estimate the current vaccine only kills between 1.4 and 8.4 people per million recipients. Out of these, it is mostly immunocompromised people. Which smallpox would almost definitely kill, thereby the vaccine at least giving them a better chance at survival.
There are also even further updated versions of this vaccine that have passed trials such as the Modified Vaccinia Ankara (MVA).
Our current vaccine options are a far cry from “concerns relating to the toxicity of modern vaccines.”
So in short, the scientists want to make a potentially “safer” vaccine using the horsepox virus instead of vaccinia virus. Which is completely stupid. They secretly just wanted to recreate a pox virus to see if it was possible and needed a cover. Thus stating they were doing it for vaccination efforts.
Since they are both in the same family and genus, it would make sense that one could make a vaccine out of horsepox much similar to Jenner’s cowpox findings.
The issue? The horsepox virus has been extinct for a long time. And it should have stayed dead. They even mention it here:
Since HPXV may be extinct and the only specimen of HPXV that has been identified is unavailable for investigation, we explored whether HPXV could be obtained by large-scale gene synthesis.
This means that they know that the horsepox virus is dead, but they want to synthetically create one to test if it could be a better vaccine.
And they did. To quote themselves:
We believe this is the first complete synthesis of a poxvirus using synthetic biology approaches.
The entire paper goes into step-by-step instructions on how to create the horsepox virus, which is a super close relative of smallpox. Theoretically, you change a few things in the paper and a malicious actor could make smallpox. Bioterrorists now have a step-by-step guide on how to do it.
Their findings showed promise to a vaccine, but at what cost? The findings note:
This scHPXV [where scHPXV is just the scientists synthetically created horsepox virus] produced smaller plaques, produced less extracellular virus and exhibited less virulence in mice than VACV, but still provided vaccine protection against a lethal VACV challenge.
Thus, the findings are “good” in the traditional scientific sense. The horsepox virus vaccine resulted in fewer issues in mice than VACV did and provided vaccine protection.
It’s not really surprising that it provided vaccine protection, as it’s the exact same pox virus genus as the other viruses that provide protection. This was an obvious outcome. What was not an obvious outcome was that it showed less virulence and less overall issues. However, this study is just tested on mice. We don’t know the effect on humans, nor has the study been replicated.
So, excellent. Maybe this will result in a better vaccine against a bioterrorist attack utilizing a synthetically created smallpox-similar agent.
But did we really need to open-source publish an easy-to-follow guide on how to make pox viruses?
How To Make Pox Virus: DIY Guide
The journal’s publisher said that the “benefits outweighed the risks”. Which makes me wonder who is completing the risk analysis for this scientific journal? A marginally safer vaccine is a better benefit than the potential bioterrorist re-introduction of smallpox worldwide? You’d have to be about as risk averse as a skydiver without a parachute to believe that.
The two Canadian scientists effectively ordered everything they needed to make a horsepox virus from online, assembled it, and then showed everyone that their synthetically created virus could reproduce and infect cells.
That’s the last thing we need with more terror states… the ability, tools, and scientific understanding of how to create a massive biological terror weapon.
And this is just for smallpox. What’s stopping some malicious actor from further changing the synthetic composition of the virus to create a different “cousin” to the virus that has vaccination-resistance effects and then attempt to distribute it?
Not much. Really, just the tools to do it. But versions of these tools are rapidly becoming cheaper. The knowledge, ability, and equipment are already out there. Most people aren’t even vaccinated against smallpox anymore since it has been eradicated worldwide, so most young adults are susceptible to this form of terrorism.
We need a much more centralized and focused concern nationally (and internationally) around bioterrorism. One benefit of this study is clear: humans can synthetically create dangerous viruses. We can now say it has been done and can be done. That alone should be enough to spark discussions about the risks of bioterror worldwide.