When Risks Outweigh Benefit

When risk outweighs benefit:

Found at Pub Med Centra; EMBO Report;

Dual-use research needs a scientifically sound risk–benefit analysis and legally binding biosecurity measures

Jan van Aken1
1Jan van Aken is a former member of the Hamburg Centre for Biological Arms Control at Hamburg University, Germany (www.biological-arms-control.org). Email: van.aken@t-online.de
In October 2005, a team of US scientists, headed by Jeffery Taubenberger from the US Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (Rockville, MD, USA), 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 (Taubenberger et al, 2005). Further work based on the sequence led to the synthesis of an influenza strain containing all eight gene segments from the 1918 pandemic virus, which showed a high virulence and mortality rate when tested in mice (Tumpey et al, 2005). Both the sequencing and the reconstruction of the Spanish influenza virus are paradigmatic proof that recent developments in genetics, genomics and other areas of the biomedical sciences might create new possibilities for biological warfare. The resurrected 1918 virus has been described as “perhaps the most effective bioweapons agent now known” (von Bubnoff, 2005), and, given the availability of its full genome sequence on the Internet, its reconstruction by rogue scientists is now a real possibility.
Not surprisingly, the publication of the Spanish influenza research triggered a controversial debate within, but not exclusive to, the scientific community, as arms-control experts questioned whether it was wise to publish a detailed account of its genome and recipe for resurrection. This debate, although necessary, has some essential shortcomings as it focuses solely on the question of whether to publish such work, and lacks a systematic approach to a general risk–benefit analysis in biomedical research. In addition, the case of the Spanish influenza publications and their relatively superficial assessment by a biosecurity advisory board in the USA exemplifies the fact that we need internationally harmonized and legally binding rules for conducting dual-use research, in order to prevent the misuse of biological knowledge.
Until now, the discussion on dual-use research has focused mainly on whether results should be published. In 2003, a group of scientific journal editors and authors published a joint statement on scientific publication and security; among other things, they suggested that potentially harmful publications should be modified or not published at all (Atlas et al, 2003). Since then, some journals have implemented an additional review tier to assess selected manuscripts for questions of biosecurity. So far, no submitted manuscript is publicly known to have been rejected for security reasons, although the publication of one paper about modelling a terrorist attack on the food supply (Wein & Liu, 2005) was delayed after intervention by the US government (Alberts, 2005).
Not surprisingly, the publication of the Spanish influenza research triggered a controversial debate within, but not exclusive to, the scientific community, as arms-control experts questioned whether it was wise to publish a detailed account of its genome and recipe for resurrection. This debate, although necessary, has some essential shortcomings as it focuses solely on the question of whether to publish such work, and lacks a systematic approach to a general risk–benefit analysis in biomedical research. In addition, the case of the Spanish influenza publications and their relatively superficial assessment by a biosecurity advisory board in the USA exemplifies the fact that we need internationally harmonized and legally binding rules for conducting dual-use research, in order to prevent the misuse of biological knowledge.
Until now, the discussion on dual-use research has focused mainly on whether results should be published. In 2003, a group of scientific journal editors and authors published a joint statement on scientific publication and security; among other things, they suggested that potentially harmful publications should be modified or not published at all (Atlas et al, 2003). Since then, some journals have implemented an additional review tier to assess selected manuscripts for questions of biosecurity. So far, no submitted manuscript is publicly known to have been rejected for security reasons, although the publication of one paper about modelling a terrorist attack on the food supply (Wein & Liu, 2005) was delayed after intervention by the US government (Alberts, 2005).
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One response to “When Risks Outweigh Benefit

  1. Pingback: When Risks Outweigh Benefit « AxXiom for Liberty - Pasarici.NET Blog

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