An expert committee that advises the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that researchers in the United States and Russia be allowed for the first time to genetically engineer variola virus, the cause of smallpox, in order to accelerate drug development.

At a meeting in Geneva last week, the Advisory Committee on Variola Virus Research voted to approve a proposal that a green fluorescence marker be inserted in the variola genome to help speed up and automate drug screening, said Geoffrey Smith, from Imperial College London, who chaired the meeting. Neither Smith, nor the WHO, would say where the proposal originated.

"We recommended that the work… should be permitted—subject to a whole load of provisos and conditions," Smith told The Scientist. Use of the marker would accelerate screening by factors of 10 or 100, he said. It would also reduce the amount of time that lab workers...

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