Publication of “Construction of an infectious horsepox virus vaccine from chemically synthesized DNA fragments” by the journal PLOS ONE last week further accentuates the need for urgent global dialogue to develop clear norms and actions for reducing biological risks posed by advances in technology. As governmental oversight continues to lag behind biotechnology breakthroughs, academic and private stakeholders conducting, funding, and publishing research - as well as those developing new technologies – also must take responsibility for mitigating risk.
The research demonstrates the potential to recreate the virus that causes smallpox—one of the greatest scourges the world has ever faced and eradicated. The risks posed by the publication of methods that could ease the pathway for synthesizing smallpox should have been carefully weighed from the outset. The investigators themselves highlight the dual-use potential of their work, yet there was no clear or routine process for taking those risks into account prior to publication.
It won’t get easier to tackle these risks, and piecemeal approaches aren’t enough. These experiments were conducted in Canada with private funding from a U.S. company and involve an agent that is not on the U.S. Biological Select Agents and Toxins list. U.S. dual-use regulations don’t apply to privately funded research or research conducted outside of the country. And even if the research had been conducted in the United States with federal funding, the existing U.S. Dual Use Research of Concern policies would not likely have kicked in because the virus causing horsepox is not included on the list of agents in those policies.