A World Health Organization (WHO) advisory committee has recommended that scientists be allowed to genetically modify the smallpox virus. If the recommendation is accepted by WHO director-general Jong-wook Lee and the World Health Assembly, it would mark the first time since smallpox was eradicated that scientists would have that body's permission to genetically modify the virus.
Smallpox eradication is one of WHO's greatest triumphs: A disease that used to kill millions was wiped out thanks to a worldwide vaccination campaign. The only known remaining smallpox virus samples are kept frozen under high security at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, and the VECTOR research center in Koltsovo, Russia. Many involved in the eradication effort pushed for the remaining stocks to be destroyed, but others argued that the stocks should be kept to allow research on new treatments or safer vaccines in case terrorists or rogue countries have secret caches.
A WHO advisory committee must approve any research done with the remaining stocks, and CDC scientists recently asked for permission to insert a marker gene, coding for green fluorescent protein, into the virus to make it easier to test the effectiveness of new antiviral drugs. The altered virus would then glow green under fluorescent light as long as the virus is intact. In the presence of effective drugs, the green glow would fade. The advisory committee approved such experiments last week, according to a WHO spokesperson.
The experiment in question "has a clear scientific rationale" with little or no chance of accidentally creating a more dangerous virus, says molecular biologist Richard Ebright of Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey. The review process it went through "is an example of how the process should work," he says.