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WHO Scientists Look to Create Genetically Modified Smallpox Virus for Bioterrorism Research

Global Security Newswire

The World Health Organization is expected to consider a recommendation from its science advisers to allow genetic modification of the smallpox virus to aid in the development of new drugs against the virus, the London Independent reported Saturday (see GSN, Jan. 5).

One scientist warned, however, that altering the genetic makeup of the variola virus could accidentally produce a more lethal form of the disease.

“What I worry about is that there is rather too much done in this area and the minute you start fooling around with it in various ways, I think there is a danger,” said Donald Henderson of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh. “I’d be happier if we were not doing it and the simple reason is I just don’t think it serves a purpose I can support.”

“The less we do with the smallpox virus and the less we do in the way of manipulation at this point I think the better off we are,” added Henderson, who directed the successful WHO vaccination program to eliminate smallpox.

In genetically modifying a mousepox virus four years ago, Australian scientists accidentally produced a highly virulent strain immune to vaccine.

The proposed modifications to variola, however, would not be as risky, according to Professor Geoffrey Smith of Imperial College London, who chairs the WHO committee for variola virus research. U.S. scientists are proposing to insert a jellyfish gene, which creates a glow they say would make the virus easier to examine under a microscope, according to Smith.

“The reason why the proposal was made and the reason why the [scientific] committee was prepared to consider it was that it is clear that there is a need to develop drugs against the virus,” Smith said. “The quickest way to screen a large database of compounds is to have an automated way and if you have a virus that expresses the green fluorescent protein you can do the drug screening in a much more rapid and automated way.”

The World Health Organization is expected to consider the recommendations of its scientific committee in May, according to the Independent.

Seven recommendations have been included in the proposal, including a request for permission to ship relatively large fragments of variola — up to 20 percent of its genome — from the only two secure laboratories where it exists, in the United States and Russia, to other facilities for study. Another recommendation seeks permission for the U.S. and Russian laboratories to dissect variola and insert fragments into other members of the same pox-virus family, according to the Independent (Steve Connor, The Independent, Jan. 22).