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Dual Use Research
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In October 2005, a team of US scientists, headed by Jeffery Taubenberger from the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (Rockville, MD), published the full sequence of the highly virulent strain of influenza virus that caused the Spanish influenza pandemic in the winter of 1918–1919 and killed up to 50 million people worldwide. Implications surrounding this controversial publication are vast. The resurrected virus has been described as "perhaps the most effective bioweapons agent now known," and, given the availability of its full genome sequence on the Internet, its reconstruction by rogue scientists is now a real possibility.
As one would imagine, the publication sparked controversial debates within scientific community focusing on the wisdom of such publication. Indeed, until very recently, the discussion on dual-use research has focused mainly on whether results should be published, paying little or no attention to the possibility of regulating or stopping experiments of concern before they are started.
The project to sequence the genome of the 1918 virus started as early as 1995, and the final outcome was clear at that time: to sequence and resurrect an extremely virulent virus that no longer existed. Both the risks and the benefits of this project could and should have been assessed 14 years ago or at any time since.
At the same time when the sequencing project began, the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies conducted a study leading to a widely recognized report on dual use research. The study began with an intensive literature search centered on capturing the history of Department of Defense (DoD) investment in technologies that have commercial potential. The second part of the study reviewed case studies of DoD's Technology Reinvestment Project (TRP), whose mission was dual-use partnerships with industry. A distinguished Senior Military Industry Panel was formed to review the accumulated data and draw conclusions on the merit of dual-use research.
Concern over "dual use" research, that is, legitimate scientific work that could be misused to threaten public health or national security, has grown as the potential for terrorism increases. In 2003, National Research Council (NRC) issued a report titled Biotechnology Research in the Age of Terrorism. While the principle outlined was simple, it did not clarify steps the scientific community would take when faced with dual-use research concerns.
The next year, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson, announced formation of a new government-wide effort to sustain the cutting-edge life sciences research for which the United States is known. However, with the "resurrected genome sequence" in mind, the knowledge and technologies growing from this research need to be carefully guarded against possible misuse. HHS's first step was to create a new board, called the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB). It took two years of preparations before the first meeting of the NSABB was called. Just one day before Spanish influenza work was published in Science, U.S. Department of Homeland Security ordered a review of the publication by the NSABB. For obvious reasons, the board could not conduct thorough review. It had little choice but to give a blanket approval to the publication with suggestion to add information on public health benefits of the reconstructed Spanish influenza virus.
The NSABB has defined "dual use research of concern" 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, agriculture, plants, animals, the environment, or materiel.
So, what are criteria for identifying dual use research of concern? According to the NSABB, careful consideration should be given to knowledge, products, or technologies that do the following:
The Federation of American Scientists arguably has the most extensive dual-use training materials available at the moment. These materials are in form of case studies on topics that include Reconstruction of the 1918 Influenza Virus; Synthesizing Polio Virus; and Aerosol Drug Delivery Research. To view full list of modules available, please follow this link.
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