|Image from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/how-canadian-researchers-built-poxvirus-100000-using-mail-order-dna|
The technology used by Evans, et al, was based on a 2002 Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) paper by Domi and Moss. The article, "Cloning the vaccinia virus genome as a bacterial artificial chromosome in Escherichia coli and recovery of infectious virus in mammalian cells" describes a method for reconstituting vaccinia virus in vitro. Again, this suggests that the technology isn't really novel, but a continuation of previous work. What was novel with what Evans et al did was that it was cheap. The final bill for the work was around US$100,000, making it finanically as well as technically feasible, hence the ethical issues.
The scientific community has faced such controversy previously, one example is when a group of scientists produced a pandemic-flu in the lab (see this article for more information or here for an article by the researchers). There are several things to consider when debating the ethics of such research:
- Does the research provide useful information? In other words, what are the benefits of the research overall? For some controversial studies, the research gives insight into the evolution of deadly diseases or steps to treatments or vaccines, such as the work by Yoshihiro Kawaoka, the scientist that researched highly-virulent strains of influenza. Other work provides little new knowledge beyond the technical.
- What are the risks to the general public? It is easy for scientists to sometimes forget that the strides they make in the lab could potentially put the public at risk. Often, their goals are to gain knowledge and insight into biological processes that can lead to helping people in the long run. The hope is that the research they are doing will lead to great strides in their fields and open doors to new treatment options, drug targets, and vaccines. In today's political climate, and post-Bacillus anthracis attacks in the US (B. anthracis is the causitive agent of the disease anthrax) scientists and government agencies need to consider the use of recreated or hypervirulent microbes for bioterror attacks. Thus, there is another layer to the risk taking in letting some knowledge out to the general public through publications where scientists who are more nefarious can take it and create bioweapons.
- Do the pros outweigh the cons? The scientific community will always debate such controversial studies. It is often up to ethics boards and journal editors to make the tough decisions to publish or not.