When the American biotech company Tonix Pharmaceuticals announced this January that it had successfully synthesized vaccinia, no one seemed to take note.
Tonix announced the new synthetic vaccinia virus quietly, burying the news in a press release for a poster that the firm presented at the American Society for Microbiology’s annual biodefense science and policy conference. The poster focused on the progress the company was making in testing Evans’s synthetic horsepox virus for use as a vaccine against smallpox, which Tonix calls TNX-801. Current smallpox vaccines are based on live vaccinia virus that is grown using cell culture technology. Tonix’s poster also references another smallpox vaccine candidate the company is testing, one based on a synthetic version of the vaccinia virus that Tonix is calling TNX-1200. While the vaccinia and horsepox viruses are not themselves serious threats to human health, there are several reasons why this new development in synthetic biology is problematic.
Tonix has apparently ignored the concerns that many biosecurity experts have raised. Given the close genetic similarity among orthopoxviruses like the horsepox, variola, and vaccinia viruses, the laboratory techniques that can be used to create one can also be used to produce others–most worryingly, the smallpox-causing variola virus.
Unlike in other cases of controversial dual-use research, the risks posed by the synthesis of orthopoxviruses are not offset by any significant benefits. The case for synthesizing vaccinia is dubious. Tonix cannot claim that synthesizing the vaccinia virus was the only way to obtain it.
Read the full article by Gregory D. Koblentz at Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists