Last year, a group of researchers at the University of Alberta set about bringing back an extinct virus known as horsepox, a relative of the most lethal virus to ever affect humankind, smallpox. To do this, all it took was a relatively small budget of $100,000 and a batch of mail-order DNA. While this may not seem particularly notable, this scientific experiment has raised serious ethical and moral concerns, considering the ease with which the potentially deadly virus was recreated.
David Evans, the research leader, has stated that the intent of the experiment was to research the potential for improved vaccines in a number of diseases, including cancer. The need for this kind of scientific development cannot be understated, especially considering the alarm within the scientific community at the rise of antibiotic resistant ‘superbugs’, as has been widely documented in recent weeks with regard to the gonorrhoea crisis. However, the more interesting admission from Evans was that, in part, he embarked on recreating the horsepox virus simply to prove that it could be done, what is known as ‘dual-use research’. Talking to Science magazine Evans said, “Have I increased the risk by showing how to do this? I don’t know. Maybe yes. But the reality is that the risk was always there.”
The idea that a disease very closely related to smallpox, the claimant of a reported 1 billion human lives until its declared extinction in 1980, can be synthesised with such little scientific expertise and equipment is particularly inflammatory when thinking of such knowledge coming into the hands of terrorist groups or any other group wishing to cause widespread damage through biotechnological warfare. Speaking on the ethical concerns of this new finding, anthrax expert Paul Keim said, “There is always an experiment or even that triggers closer scrutiny, and this sounds like it should be one of those events where the authorities start thinking about what should be regulated.”
In terms of what sort of regulatory system should be implemented in this area of scientific research, Keim can’t provide a clear example, and said that “regulating this type of activity is essentially impossible”. Virology experts and government bodies have previously proposed destroying any existing samples of viruses such as smallpox to prevent an occurrence such as this, but as Evans made clear, his work was predominantly aimed at providing a clearer insight into how to treat vaccines rather than create them.