Analysis & Opinions - Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

A biotech firm made a smallpox-like virus on purpose. Nobody seems to care

| Feb. 21, 2020

In 2017, the virologist David Evans made headlines when he used synthetic biology to recreate the extinct horsepox virus, which is closely related to the virus that causes smallpox, a disease eradicated in 1980. Evans and his team, ordering the genetic material they needed through the mail, reportedly spent $100,000 on the research, an amount that seems small given the momentous implications of their work. “No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox,” German virologist Gerd Sutter told Science magazine in a press account of Evans’s work. A number of biosecurity experts and even The Washington Post editorial board joined him in voicing their concerns. Given the reaction Evans met, one might expect the news that yet another microbe related to the smallpox virus had been synthesized to set off similar alarm bells.

Yet when the American biotech company that funded Evans’s horsepox work, Tonix Pharmaceuticals, announced this January that it had successfully synthesized just such a microbe, vaccinia, no one seemed to take note.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Koblentz, Gregory.“A biotech firm made a smallpox-like virus on purpose. Nobody seems to care.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 21, 2020.

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