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Not by good intentions alone

Posted by on July 1, 2013

Guest post by Tatyana Novossiolova, a Wellcome Trust doctoral candidate studying the governance of biotechnology in post-communist Russia at the Division of Peace Studies, University of Bradford. The issues raised in Tatyana’s post will be discussed at our ‘Bioscience to Bioweapons’ Policy Lates event next Thursday.

In May this year, Science reported the creation of a hybrid between the H5N1 avian influenza virus, which has 60% mortality rate in infected humans but does not easily spread from person to person, and the H1N1 virus, which caused several thousand deaths during the 2009 global pandemic. In light of its limited practical utility, the experiment was denounced as ‘appalling irresponsibility’. Back in 2011, similar concerns were raised following the announcement that two teams working independently in the Netherlands and the US created contagious H5N1.

Far from being isolated cases, those experiments epitomise the worrying trajectory that some bioscience research has taken over the last decade. For example, what remains frightening about the deadly anthrax letters that were posted after the 9/11 attacks was that the alleged culprit was a senior researcher working on biodefence for the US government.

Following the accidental creation of a vaccine-resistant strain of the mousepox virus (a close relation of human smallpox) by Australian researchers in 2001, scientists have subsequently deliberately created more deadly forms of mousepox and cowpox, arguing that such research is needed to understand these viruses, but also the potential threats posed by bioterrorists.

Furthermore, in 2002, around the same time Eckhard Wimmer announced the artificial synthesis of the polio virus ‘from scratch’, another US researcher, Thomas Butler, reported 30 vials of plague cultures missing from his laboratory. The subsequent investigation revealed that Butler had regularly transported plague cultures in his hand luggage on passenger aircraft without obtaining the necessary documentation.

All of these cases have raised serious questions about the responsibilities of life scientists in preventing misuse of their research, and the need for better regulation. Yet while necessary, oversight mechanisms per se will be insufficient to change the trajectory of bioscience research. It is now abundantly clear that what counts as professional responsibility for practising life scientists needs to incorporate an active awareness of the ethical, legal and social implications of their work, as well as sensitivity to the norm of biological non-proliferation.

No one contests the professional integrity and good intentions of the vast majority of practising life scientists. However, the capacities now being unlocked are increasingly open to all – including those who would harm us. Benign intentions are no longer sufficient. We have already reached the stage where education about the risks associated with the potential malicious exploitation of bioscience, and the resultant obligations incumbent upon scientists require some degree of formalisation, which is at least the equal of laboratory biosafety training.

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