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For better or worse: the dual use of biology

Posted by on May 20, 2013

Deputy Head of the Implementation Support Unit for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)Guest post by Piers D Millett, Deputy Head of the Implementation Support Unit for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)

Unfortunately, biology has huge potential to be used as a weapon, most likely by deliberately instigating disease. As yet we have no sure fire way to maximise the benefits of biology whilst minimising any risks. I believe you are going to hear a great deal more about ‘dual use research of concern’ (DURC) over the next few years.

In January this year, members of the international influenza research community ended a year-long self-imposed ban on research designed to make a bird flu virus spread from mammal to mammal. It is the most high profile recent example of DURC.

The moratorium had been put in place “to explain the public health benefits of this work, to describe the measures in place to minimise possible risks, and to enable organizations and governments around the world to review their policies”. Members of the influenza community and other experts have provided many potential public health benefits from their work. Much of the press coverage of both the original research and the processes examining it seemed far from convinced by these arguments. Did the process work? Do you share influenza research community’s views on the relative risks and benefits of such research?

Soon after scientists went back to work, the World Health Organization convened an international meeting on DURC. Influenza research was centre stage. The meeting coincided with the National Institutes for Health releasing draft federal guidance on the institutional oversight of DURC in the US.  The Biological Weapons Convention will use its August meeting, in part, to review relevant developments in science and technology. It looks like national and international policy makers have begun to weigh in on the safety and security implications of DURC.

The debate over the relative benefits and risks of the influenza transmission research is far from over. A commentary published in Nature in March described five outstanding concerns. A letter soon followed from the Foundation for Vaccine Research to the US Presidential Bioethics Committee calling for a more thorough review on moral and ethical grounds. Signatories included a Nobel Laureate, a former UK Government chief scientific advisor, and leading researchers from countries as far from the US as Brazil and South Africa. The ethics of DURC is starting to be debated by the broader life science community.

In this month’s issue of The Biologst, the Society of Biology’s magazine, I called for biologists to send clear messages to their policy centres about what needs to happen on DURC and how scientists can support efforts to ensure that the fruits of their work continues to be used only for our benefit. The influenza transmission studies are only one example; what about other types of research or work with different pathogens? I think these DURC discussions highlight the importance of demonstrating: to fellow scientists, the value of actively engaging with the broader implications of their work; to the general public, that biologists are reliable and responsible stewards; and to policy makers, that biologists must be involved in all efforts to oversee biology.

Piers D Millett is Deputy Head of the Implementation Support Unit for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) housed in the UN Office for Disarmament affairs in Geneva, Switzerland. All views here are his own and not necessarily those of the UN or BWC.

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