In 2018, Canadian academics with pharmaceutical industry funding made a stunning announcement. They had synthesized horsepox, a pathogen that no longer exists in nature and that is closely related to the smallpox virus, variola. The controversial product was meant as a vaccine candidate—intended to infect humans and confer immunity without being transmissible or pathogenic—but the biotechnology involved in its production could readily have been applied to create a pathogen with the potential to start a deadly pandemic. As it was, the research raised questions about whether it lowered the bar for bad actors to synthesize variola as a biological weapon.
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Dr. Gerald Epstein is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction (CSWMD). The views expressed in this paper authors own and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the US government.