Are we on the brink of another smallpox outbreak?

SBH e

[Editor’s note: Gregory Koblentz is a professor and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a member of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.]

The most recent dual-use concern about synthetic biology involves one of humanity’s oldest foes: smallpox. Smallpox was eradicated from nature in 1980, and all known stocks of the virus are located at World Health Organization–supervised repositories at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States and at the Vector Institute in Russia.

However, a Canadian scientist funded by the American biotech company Tonix has recently demonstrated the ability to create pox viruses from scratch. In this case, it was horsepox, a once-extinct virus resurrected by stitching together fragments of synthetic DNA to create an intact viral genome.

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The re-emergence of smallpox would be a global health disaster. Prior to its eradication, smallpox killed an estimated 300 million people, more people than all the wars of the 20th century combined.

Unfortunately, the current legal and technical safeguards against the synthesis of smallpox virus are weak and fragmented. There is no clear international legal or regulatory framework to prevent the synthesis of smallpox virus.

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Unless these safeguards are strengthened soon, the capability to produce smallpox will be globally distributed and either loosely or completely unregulated. That will open the door for a disgruntled or radicalized scientist, sophisticated terrorist group, unscrupulous company, or rogue state to re-create the smallpox virus.

The GLP aggregated and excerpted this blog/article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion, and analysis. Read full, original post: Smallpox Could Again Be a Serious Threat

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