Polio Virus Created From Scratch in Lab
Will Smallpox Be Next? Not Likely, Scientists Say
"We wanted to make sure that everybody knows -- and is put on notice -- that this kind of work can be done," he tells WebMD. "This kind of work is only a warning message. But we should note the possibility that such misuse of modern biomedical research and biotechnology could cause harm. Once we know that, we can begin to think of safeguards."
He says the WHO has already planned to stockpile polio vaccines to contain any outbreak and is continuing the vaccination program.
There's always the fear of the mad, isolated scientist not connected with any terrorist organization, Wimmer says. "That's the problem with anthrax, which we suspect was done by a very sophisticated U.S. citizen, yet we can't find him. You always have the fear of somebody crazy and intelligent. If that's the case, that person could have done what we did without our paper."
Re-creating a virus, however, "is a real complicated thing," he says. "It sounds easy, but in fact it is not easy."
"I would downplay idea that there's a threat to the public," Frederic Bushman, PhD, associate professor in infectious diseases at the Salk Institute for Biologic Studies in La Jolla, Calif., tells WebMD.
Bushman, a virologist, agreed to comment on Wimmer's research for WebMD.
In truth, the ability to assemble packages of DNA [to create an organism like the polio virus] has been available since the early 1980s, says Bushman. "There's nothing terribly new about this development -- the methods have been around a long time. But I'd like to emphasize that it's not terribly easy. It would take several people in a lab working for a couple years, and there aren't that many labs outside the U.S. that could do it."
Replicating a smallpox virus DNA "would be difficult to the point of impossible," he tells WebMD. "It would take an industrial plant doing experiments for many years to do it."
Also, pox viruses present special problems: They need to bind with proteins in order to replicate, "so you would have to put together a more sophisticated package than just the DNA," Bushman says.
Rather than focusing on "the nastiest thing possible," he would like to see researchers stick to studies of new medicines or vaccines, "and avoid grandstanding about what awful things might come of our research. There's the risk of a backlash from this kind of thing."