Jul 7, 2017

Scientists piece together extinct poxvirus

Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Researchers have re-created the extinct horsepox virus, which is closely related to smallpox, by cobbling together a patchwork of remaining pieces of DNA. The Canadian team's methods haven't been published but were reported in the news section of the journal Science on Thursday. Horsepox is harmless to humans, but scientists say this research means that smallpox may not be as extinct as previously thought.

"No question. If it's possible with horsepox, it's possible with smallpox," virologist Gerd Sutter of Ludwig Maximilians University in Munich, Germany, told Science. A World Health Organization report on the research says that recreating viruses this way takes little time, money or skill.

Why it matters: Smallpox plagued humans for thousands of years, before it was eradicated in 1977. The disease was horrific: before the smallpox vaccination was created, 1 out of 10 children in France and 1 in 7 children in Russia would die from the virus.

Not quite gone: After smallpox was eradicated, the remaining samples were supposed to be sent to two secure facilities where they could still be used for research, one in the US and one in Russia. A debate has raged over destroying those samples, because if the disease lingered hidden, those samples could help produce vaccines. It has long been a concern that terrorists might acquire the virus, either from one of the known labs, or from a different source. The WHO has measures in place should the virus re-emerge, though they say it is "impossible to assess the risk that this might happen."

Be prepared: It was concerns about potential re-emergence that led David Evans of the University of Alberta to re-create the horsepox virus. A press release from the company Tonix Pharmaceuticals states that this re-created horsepox is being used to develop a safer smallpox vaccine.

Evans argues that regardless of his research, someone would have eventually synthesized a pox virus. For years, researchers have known that modern techniques could hypothetically bring back smallpox. The polio virus was built from scratch in a lab in 2002, and in 2005 researchers re-created the 1918 flu virus. It should be noted that while creating the horsepox virus was simpler than many would like to believe, access to smallpox DNA is much more limited. "The world just needs to accept the fact that you can do this," Evans told Science. Now he hopes people will prepare.

Go deeper

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 5 p.m. ET: 652,079 — Total deaths: 30,438 — Total recoveries: 137,319.
  2. U.S.: Leads the world in cases. Total confirmed cases as of 4 p.m. ET: 116,505 — Total deaths: 1,925 — Total recoveries: 921.
  3. Federal government latest: President Trump is considering a quarantine on New York, parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. He signed a $2 trillion stimulus bill to give businesses and U.S. workers financial relief.
  4. State updates: Alaska is latest state to issue a stay-at-home order — New York is trying to nearly triple its hospital capacity in less than a month and has moved its presidential primary to June 23. Some Midwestern swing voters that supported Trump's handling of the virus less than two weeks ago are now balking at his call for the U.S. to be "opened up" by Easter.
  5. World updates: In Spain, over 1,400 people were confirmed dead between Thursday to Saturday.
  6. 🚀 Space updates: OneWeb filed for bankruptcy amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
  7. Hollywood: Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson have returned to U.S. after being treated for coronavirus.
  8. What should I do? Answers about the virus from Axios expertsWhat to know about social distancingQ&A: Minimizing your coronavirus risk
  9. Other resources: CDC on how to avoid the virus, what to do if you get it.

Subscribe to Mike Allen's Axios AM to follow our coronavirus coverage each morning from your inbox.

Infant dies after testing positive for coronavirus in Chicago

Hospital staff working inside a COVID-19 screening tent in Chicago on March 26. Photo: Jim Vondruska/NurPhoto via Getty Images

An infant less than one year old died in Chicago, Illinois after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, the state health department said on Saturday.

Why it matters: The death would mark the first reported infant mortality from COVID-19 in the U.S. The fatality rate for the novel coronavirus in the U.S. is highest among those over 85 years old, per the CDC.

Go deeperArrow40 mins ago - Health

Trump weighs quarantine of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut

Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

President Trump said on Saturday he is considering a "short term" quarantine of New York, New Jersey and parts of Connecticut — states that have already taken steps to quarantine residents and promote social distancing.

The big picture: With 112,000 people infected, the U.S. has the most COVID-19 cases in the world, exceeding China and Italy, per data from Johns Hopkins. A second wave of American cities, including Boston, Detroit, New Orleans and Philadelphia, are reporting influxes of cases.

Go deeperArrowUpdated 58 mins ago - Health