The Dual-Use Conundrum

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Science  14 Sep 2012:
Vol. 337, Issue 6100, pp. 1273
DOI: 10.1126/science.1229789

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Scientists are increasingly able to create genetically modified microorganisms whose properties are perceived as being beneficial as well as potentially useful for malevolent purposes. In 2004, a committee of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences adopted the term “dual use” for instances in which genetic or biosynthetic manipulations create new microorganisms, which, although valuable scientifically, are susceptible to misuse.* The premise was that the prospects for malevolent outcomes derive from deliberate actions to inflict specific or widespread harm. But in those and subsequent discussions, too little attention was given to the likelihood of an accidental laboratory release of modified agents that would allow them to spread in susceptible human populations. Recent research with a highly pathogenic influenza virus has highlighted the importance of this issue. Reviews of the influenza research concluded that given “the risk of accidental or malicious release,” the benefits of such studies must be well justified.† Thus, specific guidelines must be enforced to thwart not only intentionally harmful outcomes but accidental releases as well.