Promise and Peril: Dual-Use Research in the Life Sciences

Here are two sections from the WHO report:

Advances in the life sciences and technology are making vital contributions to improving global health. New scientific insights that are subsequently translated into technology and refined, adapted and assimilated by innovative processes play a crucial role in advancing knowledge and addressing critical societal challenges. Yet, transformative developments in a wide range of fields can also pose risks to global health. It is therefore prudent to assess the potential adverse consequences of choosing particular technological pathways and potentially deleterious applications of technologies.

Dual-use research of concern (DURC) is defined as life science research that is intended for benefit but which might be misapplied to do harm (1). Such research has increased substantially in the past two decades. It includes, for instance, synthesis of the poliovirus (2), modification of the mousepox virus (3), production of mammal-transmissible strains of H5N1 avian flu (4, 5) and, more recently, de-novo synthesis of the horsepox virus (6). Dual-use issues can arise in a range of disciplines, beyond experiments for gain of function.

WHO both assesses and addresses concerns about dual use of scientific and technological developments by setting normative standards, issuing guidance and guidelines and facilitating discussions among stakeholders. In 2010, WHO issued guidance on responsible research (7), and, more recently, the WHO’s Thirteenth General Programme of Work (2019-2023) mandated that WHO should “be at the forefront of … new scientific fields and the challenges they pose” and should closely monitor and provide guidance on “developments at the frontier of new scientific disciplines” (8). In 2020, WHO convened discussions with key stakeholder groups, including funding organizations, scientific journals and scientific academies and councils (9), and issued guidance on biosafety and biosecurity in biomedical laboratories (10). WHO is currently developing a new guidance framework on responsible use of life sciences.

We report here the results of an international horizon scanning exercise, organized by WHO to ensure foresight. The group of experts, from a range of disciplines, undertook a broad examination of scientific and technological developments that could give rise to concern over the next two decades and identified 15 priorities

A Horizon Scan of Dual-Use Research of Concern
The WHO Science Division established a Global Health Foresight function to monitor developments and assist Member States in building “futures-thinking” and “horizon-scanning” into strategic health planning. The aim is help Member States better anticipate and prepare for a changing world, to accelerate and fully harness the gains from emerging technologies, while monitoring the risks and challenges that might arise from those technologies.

Horizon-scanning is a systematic process for identifying plausible threats and opportunities from future developments (11, 12). It has been applied widely, including in related areas of biosecurity (13) and public health (14). Previous scans have been effective in capturing impactful emerging issues (15). Horizon scans are not designed to predict the future but rather to identify areas that deserve further attention and deliberation. It can provide useful information for policy and for risk mitigation

For this horizon-scanning exercise, WHO used a structured elicitation process to identify issues that were considered plausibly to raise significant dualuse concerns and convened a multidisciplinary group of global experts to discuss them. The issues were anonymously scored and prioritized and, after discussion, reduced to a shortlist of 32 topics. The shortlist was debated before anonymous rescoring and refinement and reduced to the final list of priorities, presented below.

For the purposes of this exercise, we used the WHO definition of DURC as “life science research that is intended for benefit, but which might easily be misapplied to do harm” (1). This deliberately broad definition casts a wide net to capture a wide range of issues. It emphasizes the ostensibly beneficial nature of research in the life sciences but also the risks of misuse. Such risks could have at least three sources: information generated by well-intended research; methods and technologies developed and used in such research; and the products of such research. Additional risks stem from accidents (biosafety) and possible malicious use (biosecurity). Addressing biosecurity risks can in some cases address biosafety risks and vice versa.

The issues presented consequently cover a range of areas, from governance to disease agents and new methods of delivery. We do not present a ranked list of the issues in order to avoid giving a misleading sense of precision and certainty and to avoid overemphasizing minor differences in scoring. Rather, we present the priorities according to their most likely timelines to realization, as identified by the expert group, with the exception of the identified priority governance issues, which are listed separately. The list should not be seen as one of disconnected, discrete technologies but as a system of interlinked trends. The list is also not an exhaustive list of DURC issues. The horizon scan provided a basis for further deliberation by policy-makers and researchers and for wider public engagement.