Why Is a U.S. Biotech Making Synthetic Vaccinia Virus?

Concept drawing of smallpox. Credit: Shutterstock
Concept drawing of vaccinia. Credit: Shutterstock

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


How Canadian researchers reconstituted an extinct poxvirus for $100,000 using mail-order DNA Science

A paper showing how to make a smallpox cousin just got published. Critics wonder why Science

A Critical Analysis of the Scientific and Commercial Rationales for the De Novo Synthesis of Horsepox Virus mSphere

Synthetic horsepox viruses and the continuing debate about dual use research PLOS Pathogens

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