The Dual-Use Conundrum

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

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.


The 2004 committee recommended that individual scientists and the editors of scientific journals exercise responsible judgment in undertaking and publishing experiments that describe the creation of, or could lead to, such biological agents of concern. This led to the creation of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to advise the federal government on policies governing publication, public communication, and dissemination of dual-use research methodologies and results. Recognizing that identifying all experiments or products of potential misuse was problematic, the NSABB adopted the term “dual-use research of concern” to focus on those entities that could, if misused, cause grave harm on a large scale.

Earlier this year, the NSABB was embroiled in a high-profile decision regarding the publication of research on enhanced transmissibility of the avian H5N1 influenza virus. The principal concern was that publishing such findings might embolden those with sinister motives to use that information to create a worldwide pandemic. The final outcome was to publish the papers in their entirety, reflecting a judgment that the risk of malicious actions was less than the benefits investigators would derive from an enhanced capability to design protective measures. Throughout that debate, far less attention was given to the probabilities of inadvertent release of the modified viral strains and the consequences for susceptible human populations. Past experience provides a useful lesson. In the 1970s, accidental release was at the center of the biosafety debate generated by the advent of recombinant DNA technology. A meeting of scientists at Asilomar in 1975 resulted in federal and institutional oversight and regulation of recombinant DNA research. In that case, specific modes of physical and biological containment, commensurate with the anticipated potential risks, were mandated to minimize the potential harm from an inadvertent release of genetically modified agents. There were also experiments that were forbidden for this reason. At that time, the possibility of state-initiated terrorism was considered but judged to be of lesser concern than accidents.

Although deliberate misuse might well pose a greater risk today, recent calculations suggest that in research with highly transmissible and virulent biological agents, accidental release remains of great concern.§ It is imperative, therefore, that funding agencies and research institutions pay special heed to the effectiveness of the containment being used to minimize the likelihood of either accidental or malicious release. It is also essential that all laboratory personnel be highly trained and tightly supervised to ensure biosecurity.

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