Biothreats, bioterrorism, dual-use research, National Academy of Sciences | Homeland Security Newswire

BiothreatsLax policies governing dual-use research, scientists unaware of research’s biosecurity implications

Published 15 September 2017

The National Academies of Sciences has examined policies and practices governing dual-use research in the life sciences – research that could potentially be misused to cause harm – and its findings identify multiple shortcomings. While the United States has a solid record in conducting biological research safely, the policies and regulations governing the dissemination of life sciences information that may pose biosecurity concerns are fragmented. Evidence also suggests that most life scientists have little awareness of biosecurity issues, the report says, stressing the importance of ongoing training for scientists.

A new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine examines policies and practices governing dual-use research in the life sciences – research that could potentially be misused to cause harm – and its findings identify multiple shortcomings. While the United States has a solid record in conducting biological research safely, the policies and regulations governing the dissemination of life sciences information that may pose biosecurity concerns are fragmented. Evidence also suggests that most life scientists have little awareness of biosecurity issues, the report says, stressing the importance of ongoing training for scientists. 

NAS says that since 2001, when letters containing anthrax were mailed to some members of Congress and the media, there have been no public reports of serious biosecurity incidents in the United States, the report notes. Nonetheless, concerns persist that a serious incident could occur. Controversies have arisen over whether certain life sciences research should be published – for example, a 2005 paper that described research to reconstruct the virus responsible for the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic and two 2011 papers that identified genetic mutations that increase the transmissibility of H5N1 avian influenza. In light of such controversies, the National Academies were asked to review the current landscape of policies and regulations and to consider options for dealing with dual-use research; the Academies were not tasked with offering recommendations.

The Academies’ report acknowledges the difficulty of guarding against misuse of research findings while preserving the benefits of open dissemination, which can alert relevant communities to a risk, aid the development of countermeasures, and support scientific advances that can yield significant public health benefits. “Optimizing policies that encourage scientific openness while in appropriate cases limiting the dissemination of research results that might be misused is a difficult challenge, and there is significant debate about whether and how to limit dissemination,” said Harold Varmus, Lewis Thomas University Professor at Weill Cornell Medicine, New York City, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. “We hope that our report will inform future discussions and policies on managing dual-use research.”