Dr Supatra Marsh, BBSRC Policy Fellow at the Society of Biology, is organising Policy Lates: Dodging a biological bullet – what can we learn from the US and Europe about Biosecurity?
During my BBSRC science policy fellowship at the Society of Biology I have been organising the next Policy Lates event focussing on dual-use research. Just in case there are any of you out there that are asking the question ‘what is dual-use research?’ I have tried to write a beginner’s guide to dual-use and biosecurity; dual-use for dummies if you will!
According to the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) in the United States, dual-use or dual-use research of concern (DURC) is defined as “research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied by others to pose a threat to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, the environment or material“ 1. In other words, the scientific research being done has a dual-use; the initial purpose of it being carried out in the first place – usually to benefit the public’s health or for the advancement of science – and also an unintended use such as bioterrorism.
A much publicised example of DURC came to the fore in 2012 when two papers were published on research into the bird flu virus, H5N1. These so-called “gain-of-function” studies detailed genetic descriptions of mutations that conferred the virus with the ability to be transmitted between mammals. This research sparked controversy because of the risk of misuse of this information which could lead to disastrous consequences such as accidental or intentional release of the modified virus. Gain-of-function experiments result in enhanced capability – in this case the bird flu virus was genetically modified giving it the ability to cross the species-barrier i.e. pass from mammal to mammal whereas before it was only transmissible between birds.
The aim of these gain-of-function experiments is to try and stay one step ahead of the virus which naturally mutates at a rapid rate. These experiments confirmed that the virus could indeed evolve to become transmissible between mammals. This knowledge means that the science community is arguably better informed about how to deal with this situation, should it occur. This has implications for vaccine development and improved surveillance.
Scientists pride themselves on the ability to freely share knowledge for scientific advancement. However if publications of dual-use research are open access this means that potentially anyone could get their hands on this information and it could be used to cause harm such as by developing bioweapons. The NSABB recommended that the mutational sequences be redacted in the publication of the bird flu gain-of-function experiments. This goes against the scientific ethos of openly sharing information, repeating experiments to confirm reliability of results and providing evidence to support the conclusions of the research. In 2012, the NSABB reversed their decision and both papers were published in their entirety in Nature and Science.
So the question now is – how shall we move forward? The US has recently announced a halt on funding of ‘gain-of-function’ experiments on dangerous microbes or toxins, including influenza, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) 2. This is to provide time to do a robust risk-benefit analysis. Scientists warn that seasonal flu vaccines and antiviral drug development will be hampered by this moratorium 3.
There is also the problem of inconsistencies in biosecurity regulations in different countries. This risk-benefit assessment process should not only concern the US but be an international undertaking. The consequences of this research will be global, whether it be beneficial or harmful. Will we be able to act in time to dodge this potential ‘biological bullet’?
This issue will be the focus of the discussion at the latest Society of Biology Policy Lates event, which will bring together biosecurity experts from the US and Europe to discuss the situation in their countries and to see whether there is a prospect of an international consensus.
Policy Lates: Dodging a biological bullet – what can we learn from the US and Europe about Biosecurity? Thursday 20th November 2014, 18:00-21:00 – Charles Darwin House, 12 Roger Street, WC1N 2JU. Find more information and book a free place.