‘The world is now more vulnerable to smallpox’

A controversial paper that shows exactly how to make a virus similar to smallpox has prompted fierce outrage in the scientific community.

Furious researchers have blasted the publication of the report, warning it is a ‘serious mistake’ and ‘the world is now more vulnerable’ to the killer virus.

Fears the lethal virus could fall in the hands of terrorists have circled for years, amid reports North Korea was mass producing deadly batches of smallpox.

And now researchers have attacked the new study, which shows precisely how to construct horsepox – a close relative of the feared bug.

Smallpox killed at least 300 million people in the 20th century and is considered to be one of the most devastating diseases in history. 

Furious researchers have blasted the publication of the report, warning it is a ‘serious mistake’ and ‘the world is now more vulnerable’ to smallpox

The worrying trial, led by Professor David Evans at the University of Alberta, Canada, stirred alarm when it made headlines last July.

Concerns were raised that any successful experiments to make a horsepox virus from scratch would make it just as easy to reproduce its deadly cousin.

They were able to recreate the extinct virus after assembling 212,000 fragments of DNA that they purchased on the internet for around $100,000 (£71,000). 

The researchers received more backlash, with critics warning of the same problems they did before, when their final results were published in PLOS ONE on Friday. 

It was claimed that the experiment would lead to a more effective vaccine against smallpox amid rising fears it could be used in biological warfare.

But leading experts in their fields have slammed the decision to publish the study, which shows their exact method in creating the horsepox virus.

They also warned that effective vaccines against smallpox already exist, with the US government stockpiling 28 million doses, with easy access to another 13 million.

Dr Thomas Inglesby, director of the Center for Health Security at Johns Hopkins University, warned publishing the study was a ‘serious mistake’.

He told Science: ‘The world is now more vulnerable to smallpox.’  

Professor Evans, whose work was funded by pharmaceutical firm Tonix, argued last July that the risk of recreating a deadly virus was always there.

While horsepox itself is not harmful to humans, the technique to piece it together could be used to synthesise other dangerous viruses.

Virologists agreed ‘some guy in a cave’ wouldn’t be able to recreate the bug, but a ‘reasonably equipped’ undergraduate medical student could.

The original work prompted calls for tougher regulation over what research can be conducted with killer viruses, such as smallpox.

Researchers warned that it is likely other universities could be working on similar projects as Alberta University isn’t a leading institution.

World Health Organization guidelines only prevent scientists from attempting to build the full smallpox genome, not one for a similar virus. 


  • The first known victim of smallpox was Pharaoh Ramses V of Egypt, who died in 1157BC and whose mummy still bears the scars of the disease.
  • When the Spanish took it into Hispaniola – now Haiti and the Dominican Republic – which they settled for sugar cane plantation in 1509, it killed every one of the 2.5 million natives within a decade.
  • More than 200 years ago, physician Edward Jenner made a crucial-discovery which led to the first vaccine. He found that milkmaids who developed cowpox through working close to the animals day after day seemed to be protected from smallpox, the human form of the disease.
  • In Britain, the disease was endemic until 1935.
  • The last major outbreak in Europe was in 1972 when 20 million were vaccinated after a pilgrim returning to Yugoslavia from Mecca infected 175 people.
  • Doctors waged a vaccination campaign to wipe out smallpox which succeeded by the late 1970s.
  • All nations were asked to destroy stocks of the virus or hand them to high-security installations in the US or Russia. It is feared terrorists may have got supplies from Russia in the 1980s.

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