Only a few hundred years ago the world's most feared disease was smallpox. Smallpox killed millions, and no one was safe. But thanks to a global campaign to eradicate the disease, along with powerful vaccines, smallpox no longer exists. No one has suffered from smallpox since 1978, and smallpox is now one of medicine's biggest success stories.
But all that it would take to change that might be a bit of cash and some DNA. A group of researchers at the University of Alberta managed to , another extinct virus. The team purchased DNA fragments from a commercial DNA company and combined them to create a fully-functioning horsepox genome, which they used to create more copies of the virus.
The entire process took around half a year and cost the team about $100,000, meaning that it may be possible for another small lab to replicate the work. That team could recreate any pox virus—including the deadly smallpox—with minimal effort. There are even fears that terrorists or a rogue nation could resurrect smallpox for use as a biological weapon.
If that does happen, it could be disastrous—almost nobody is vaccinated for smallpox anymore. If governments want to safeguard against the possibility of a smallpox outbreak, they may have to start vaccinating people again, which would require developing a new smallpox vaccine.
It's not all bad news, though. There's the possibility that recreating the smallpox genome could tell us more about how the virus evolved and how humans developed the first treatments for it. It could even lead to the development of new vaccines, both for smallpox and for other diseases.
Still, it's a bit worrying to realize that no matter how thoroughly we eradicate a disease, all it takes to bring it back again is a little money.