And we talk about smallpox again ! CBRNe agent

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And we talk about smallpox again ! CBRNe agent

The genome of the dangerous virus of smallpox has just been synthesized thanks to the techniques of synthetic biology. What have we to think about it ?

In 2002, it was a strain of poliomyelitis virus that had been “artificially” synthetized in the laboratory. Its size is 30 times smaller than the smallpox genome but it took only 15 years to overcome technical problems and to fully synthesize the genome of the equine smallpox virus. Bad news ? Maybe yes if the strain falls in malicious hands. Maybe not if it allows to create new vaccines and / or to develop anti-cancer drugs.


The disease is terrible and the virus is part of Category A agents CBRNE risk.
No strain is currently circulating, the disease having been officially eradicated in 1980. Only two structures, one American and one Russian laboratory still have strains waiting for their destruction.


A recent article written by the Canadian virologist team David Evans has just been rejected for publication by the journals “Nature” and “Science”. The team of this researcher showed that they were able to synthesize the DNA of the equine smallpox virus; Introduced into an appropriate cell culture the virus can then be produced.

Their work was presented at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Smallpox Virus Research at WHO.
Technically speaking, the synthesis of a genome had already been carried out on poliomyelitis virus 30 times smaller than that of smallpox. In addition, the genome ends of the smallpox virus have “hairpin” structures that are difficult to recreate.

David Evans and his colleague Ryan Noyce simply ordered DNA sequences of about 30,000 bp from a German company and put them together to form the virus DNA of 212,000 bp. The infected cells produced virus that has all the characteristics of the equine smallpox virus!
The WHO report notes that “this work did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skills, substantial fundamentals or a long time (10,000 Dollars and 6 months of work).

David Evans pointed out that his work was sufficiently detailed to be understood by specialists but that the details were not given in full in order to avoid misappropriating the results.

Dual-use research

This type of research obviously raises a problem of misuse.
Developing equine smallpox virus, which is also extinct from nature, can help manufacture vaccines against human smallpox, the side effects of which are much less than those caused by the human virus. In addition, the synthesis of poxviruses can also help the development of cancer killer tumor viruses.

Of course, everyone is also thinking about the revival of the smallpox virus directed by individuals or states who want to use it as a biological weapon.

Like Evans, everyone is well aware of the problem, but like him, it is clear that it is possible to synthesize viruses with relatively few means and in any case, it must be taken into account.


The US government has gathered new stocks of smallpox vaccine and has launched a vaccination campaign for first responders.
If smallpox returned, it would cause panic, destabilize public health systems, but as it is relatively infectious and spreads slowly it is likely to be contained relatively easily after vaccination.

Regulatory Issues

Several lines of reflection:

  • control the production of nucleic acids; (Possible?)
  • create an international license such as the one in the United States where it is forbidden to synthesize one of the 15 listed viruses which may have dual uses;
  • supervise, as in Canada, all experiments which may lead to dual uses;
  • create a sharing mechanism that obliges all virus syntheses to be declared to the WHO for example, knowing that with this method one could create a potentially very dangerous virus totally unknown in nature!.

The inevitable march of research confronts us with our responsibility!

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