Date Published: October 4, 2018
Publisher: Public Library of Science
Author(s): Tom Inglesby, Carolyn B. Coyne.
Horsepox is in the same viral family as smallpox; both are orthopox viruses. There has been no prior published report of an orthopox synthesis, so this experiment is the first time researchers have published a description of how to make a virus closely related to smallpox. In doing and publishing the horsepox synthesis work, the researchers have reduced uncertainties and addressed potential barriers that scientists would encounter in an effort to synthesize smallpox. In the paper, the scientists describe how they addressed “challenges” in the work . For a scientific group determined to synthesize smallpox de novo, the paper would be useful. Drew Endy, a synthetic biologist on WHO’s Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research (ACVVR), said about the publication, “There are things in this paper that I wouldn’t know how to do and had never been done before” . Other virologists have commented that they did not think the paper was a major technical advance; even if this were the case, it seems quite ill-advised to publish the full prescriptive details of the synthesis in one manuscript. Even Evans and colleagues said in the conclusion of their paper, “… This is clearly an example of dual-use research, and observations like these pose significant challenges for public health authorities” .
One of the proposed benefits of this work was that it would lead to a better smallpox vaccine. The case that this strain could be used to create a vaccine as effective and safer than the current smallpox vaccines is a hypothesis that could only be proven by substantial investment and many years of work. Moreover, there are no indicators that government or nongovernmental entities would be willing to provide the substantial funding that would be required over many years to complete that work . Even in the case that there had been evidence that a better smallpox vaccine could have been developed with this strain and that there had been government interest in developing a new vaccine, a broader engagement with those concerned with the risks and those arguing for the benefits should have been undertaken. Perhaps that process would have resulted in identifying another path toward meeting the vaccine goals of the researchers without performing and synthesizing horsepox de novo. This now appears to be the case: the CDC has noted that it would have been willing to share its strain of horsepox, which would have obviated the need for horsepox synthesis .
Three changes should be pursued in order to address future experiments that could substantially increase pandemic risks: the adoption of a new norm in science related to this category of work, more transparency in the review of experiments that could increase pandemic risks, and increased oversight of this realm of work.