Smallpox from scratch in a lab, scientists warn

Scientists have re-created a relative of the smallpox virus in a lab, from scratch.

This virus, called the horsepox virus, is not harmful to humans, but the new findings suggest that it’s possible for people to make the deadly smallpox virus in a lab. That virus was eradicated from the world in 1980, according to the journal Science .

Re-creating the horsepox virus wasn’t a trivial feat, but it did not require extensive resources, either. The researchers ordered the DNA fragments they used to make the virus from a company that makes DNA pieces for researchers, with made-to-order sequences, and sends them through the mail. In total, the project cost $100,000 and took six months, Science reported.

The researchers, from the University of Alberta in Canada, hope their effort could one day lead to a better smallpox vaccine. Although most people no longer receive smallpox vaccination , the shot is sometimes given to people who may be at risk for contracting the disease, such as those who work with smallpox or similar viruses in a lab. A small percentage of those vaccinated with the current vaccine may experience serious, life-threatening side effects, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Canadian researchers are working with the pharmaceutical company Tonix to develop a smallpox vaccine. In March, Tonix issued a statement announcing that it had used the horsepox virus to develop a potential smallpox vaccine, which showed protective effects in an early study in mice.

Although many researchers assumed it would one day be possible to re-create poxviruses — the family of viruses to which smallpox and horsepox belong — there was still some debate about the issue. David Evans, the lead researcher of the horsepox virus work, told Science that he performed the feat in part to put an end to the debate. “The world just needs to accept the fact that you can do this, and now we have to figure out what is the best strategy for dealing with that,” Evans told Science.