Creating a pox that's small
July 12, 2017 8:09 PM   Subscribe

Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA Sciencemag: Virologists synthesized the extinct horsepox - harmless to humans - by combining genetic material ordered by mail.

David Evans, lead on the project, hopes the research will "will help unravel the origins of a centuries-old smallpox vaccine and lead to new, better vaccines or even cancer therapeutics".

What are those mysterious origins? The standard story of Edward Jenner and his vaccine involved cowpox, but there are hints that the virus used was horsepox instead. And although Jenner deserves immense respect for his work, he didn't dream the idea from nothing. Before vaccines there was variolation: using smallpox scabs and pus to introduce the germ. It was dangerous, and people died, but at profoundly lower rates than those who suffered the disease by contagion.

China has the oldest documented use with medical records explaining the practice dating back to the 15th century, and similar practices were also used in the Middle East and Africa. African slaves introduced the medical procedure to America. Cotton Mather learned about the practice from his slave, Onesimus, and it was used during a smallpox epidemic in Boston in 1721. At the same time, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was popularizing the practice in Britain and then throughout England after learning of it during her stay in Istanbul.

Some Americans and Europeans resisted variolation, some terrified of any contact with smallpox, others condemning it as against the will of God. (Not that that stopped America from using it as a weapon.) Jenner's vaccination was, by contrast, remarkably safe, and further revolutionized medical science. Still: we must consider the women who provided this medicine, who knew about it and taught the knowledge and saved countless lives.

Those were saved lives amongst many, many loss. Smallpox was a global scourge and one of the most feared diseases, with outbreaks dating back to, at minimum, 3000 BC. It killed millions, altered wars, changed the course of history, and caused untold suffering. But we get to say this in past-tense: we wiped out smallpox as a contagious disease. From variolation to vaccine to a world-wide campaign, no one suffers now. It is one of the most remarkable achievements of humankind - comparable, Donald Henderson said, to landing on the moon. (Previously.)

That's careful wording. Although the contagion has stopped smallpox still exists, and here's where this interesting horsepox experiment gets a little unnerving. When in 1980 the WHO confirmed smallpox outbreaks were officially over, the question arose: do we keep this virus around? Was the scientific knowledge worth the danger? There are now only two locations where variola virus is officially stored and handled under WHO supervision: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and the State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology (VECTOR Institute) in Koltsovo, Russia. Locked away safely, except for the occasional lost box (previously) or the tons and tons of smallpox made (definitely) and destroyed (allegedly) by American and Russian scientists during the Cold War.

As quite a bit of smallpox was produced and both the virus's destination - and that of the well-educated but poorly-paid scientists after the collapse of the Soviet Union - is hinted at darkly but fairly unknown, it's been a bugbear of those who are wary of a bioterrorism or biowarfare attack with the "oldie moldies". Proponents of public health readiness warn that germ warfare is as devastating as a nuclear attack but a lot cheaper and a lot easier to pull off.

We can reassure ourselves that such an attack with smallpox would have to involve contact with those who had access to the original stockpiles - but this scientific breakthrough is an interesting potential change. WHO observed that Evans's effort "did not require exceptional biochemical knowledge or skills, significant funds or significant time." "No question. If it’s possible with horsepox, it’s possible with smallpox," virologist Gerd Sutter stated.

We still have vaccines around. But as we think about dual-use research, scientific access, health insurance, or government reactions, consider public health: that often overlooked but life-saving emergency monitoring and reacting system that keeps us safe from the stomach flu and smallpox.

Further reading on public health, smallpox, and germ warfare might include:
The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett
Betryal of Trust by Laurie Garrett
Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston
Inside the Outbreaks by Mark Pendergrast
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss
The Biology of Doom by Ed Regis

And Smallpox and its Eradication, free online from the WHO.
posted by hapaxes.legomenon (20 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
harmless to humans

Famous last words, just before the beginning of the zombie apocalypse.
posted by axiom at 8:47 PM on July 12 [8 favorites]


Mail order pox is now a thing I know about. I'm not sure how I feel about that, but excellent post!
posted by right_then at 8:50 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


No matter how well I know the context, I shall take several orphans, infect them with pox, and ship them out of the country always sounds like a supervillian plot.
posted by ckape at 9:30 PM on July 12 [5 favorites]


Well, I'm.. it's just... nope. We're doomed.
posted by SecretAgentSockpuppet at 9:42 PM on July 12 [1 favorite]


hapaxes.legomenon: " It is one of the most remarkable achievements of humankind - comparable, Donald Henderson said, to landing on the moon."

I'd say is at least an order of magnitude more impressive. Landing on the moon basically just required a huge stack of money. Eradicating smallpox required a large stack of money and universal international cooperation for decades. We could go to the moon anytime we want; I'm less sure eradicating smallpox would be possible if we were starting from scratch today.
posted by Mitheral at 10:27 PM on July 12 [16 favorites]


eradicating smallpox would be possible if we were starting from scratch

I see what you did there.
posted by benzenedream at 11:55 PM on July 12 [2 favorites]


they fucking did WHAT
posted by a horse at 4:52 AM on July 13 [18 favorites]


This makes me think of Frank Herbert's The White Plague which, um, didn't end well.
posted by octothorpe at 5:33 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


I've been hoping for a few years now that FUCKING SOMETHING exists in some three letter agency that does even just basic blast searches of oligos that people order against restricted organisms.

But that might have been waaaaaay to much to hope for and Jesus Tapdancing Christ could someone please get to work on a new Smallpox vaccine?
posted by Slackermagee at 6:17 AM on July 13


Damn, I knew smallpox was undesireable, but I looked into the specifics, and, do not want.
posted by thelonius at 6:27 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


Jesus Tapdancing Christ could someone please get to work on a new Smallpox vaccine?

A new smallpox vaccine was approved in the US in 2007.
posted by jedicus at 7:37 AM on July 13


The dual-use problem with biological weapons is huge. With nuclear weapons (and the missiles to deliver them), there are a whole bunch of specialized technologies that have no or almost no other legitimate use. If a rogue state is importing hundreds of high-powered gaseous centrifuges, it's not hard to convince people that they're up to no good. Chemical weapons are harder, but they don't give the same bang for the buck, to the point where it's not clear to me why they even count as WMD, other than being grandfathered in for historical reasons.

But biological weapons are a whole other ball game. There is literally no piece of technology or expertise involved that doesn't also have a ton of legitimate, even life-saving, uses in research and industry. A WMD expert of my acquaintance once told a story about being taken to a facility in Chile, which was dug deep in the side of a mountain. After taking an elevator deep underground, he was given a tour past massive digestors capable of minutely controlling the growing conditions of micro-organisms and producing batch after batch of hundreds of gallons of carefully bio-engineered product. And then at the end of the tour he was invited to drink some of that product, because while the facility in question had everything you needed to create a supervillain-worthy biological weapons arsenal, it was, in fact, a winery.
posted by firechicago at 7:40 AM on July 13 [11 favorites]


A new smallpox vaccine was approved in the US in 2007.

I was under the impression that ACAM had commonly occuring, nasty side effects that made it not terribly useful, unless I'm thinking of something else.
posted by Slackermagee at 7:58 AM on July 13


I hope this gets popular enough that someone opens a chain of stores selling the ingredients, if only so I can use the term "mallpox" about the inevitable global pandemic, just before I expire.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 9:29 AM on July 13 [1 favorite]


I was under the impression that ACAM had commonly occuring, nasty side effects that made it not terribly useful, unless I'm thinking of something else.

Serious heart-related side effects in 1 in 175 first-time recipients, similar to the existing vaccine (Dryvax). It also has the usual live virus risk that getting the vaccine makes you contagious for a while (not, it should be noted, contagious with actual smallpox; the vaccine uses a live virus related to smallpox but that is not nearly as dangerous).

Apparently developing a fundamentally different vaccine is difficult because it would require efficacy testing using live smallpox in humans, which would be a pretty tough case to make before an IRB, to put it mildly.
posted by jedicus at 9:30 AM on July 13 [2 favorites]


A plague on all your houses.

Shakespeare
posted by Oyéah at 9:44 AM on July 13


I hope this gets popular enough that someone opens a chain of stores selling the ingredients, if only so I can use the term "mallpox" about the inevitable global pandemic, just before I expire.

I have some bad news for you about malls...
posted by Ufez Jones at 10:03 AM on July 13


A plague on all your houses horses.
posted by grobstein at 2:32 PM on July 13 [1 favorite]


I've been hoping for a few years now that FUCKING SOMETHING exists in some three letter agency that does even just basic blast searches of oligos that people order against restricted organisms.


There is an industry organization which does exactly this: IGSC. I'm pretty sure if you try to order smallpox you will get a visit from a Federal agent.
posted by benzenedream at 9:32 PM on July 13


A plague on all your houses horses.

Well fuck you too.
That's it. I'm done with this place.
posted by a horse at 1:03 AM on July 14 [10 favorites]


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