Dual Use Research on Microbes: Biosafety, Biosecurity, Responsibility

On December 10 to 12, 2014, a Herrenhausen Symposium was held in Hanover, Germany and discussed different approaches and perspectives to regulate Dual Use Research of Concern focusing on the pressing issue of lab made microbes.

The publication of two papers reporting the engineering of highly pathogenic avian H5N1 influenza A viruses that can be efficiently transmitted by respiratory droplets resulted in a heated debate about the risks and benefits of conducting and publishing such forced evolution research. The work is referred to as on gain of function (GOF) research, or Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). DURC with microbes raises special issues concerning biosafety, biosecurity, and potential limits to the freedom of research. How should we balance the freedom of the individual scientist, the interest in unlimited communication of research results, and the interest of society not to be exposed to avoidable or potentially uncontrollable risks?

Different governmental and institutional regulations or codes, both national and international, provide frameworks and guidance that in most cases were developed in response to particular discoveries. The rapid development of biomedical research including genome editing and synthetic biology creates the need for a broader agreement on potential limits to certain experiments that can lead to harm. New international codes and regulations need to be discussed and adapted in an open exchange between scientists, governmental and research institutions as well as representatives of scientific societies and public stakeholders.

Audio: Decisions about Gain-of-function Research: Who Bears the Burden of Proof?

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Harvey Fineberg, Institute of Medicine, Washington

In his talk, Harvey Fineberg describes a recent fundamental shift in US policy on dual use research on microbes: In the past, the burden of proof whether research or the publication of research results was too high a risk, lay with the regulating body, i.e. mainly the government. The halting of funding turned this around. Now the researchers and the research institutions have the burden of proof to show that the benefits of going forward with their research outweigh the risks. Fineberg describes what a discussion about this kind of risk-benefit analysis could look like and who needs to be involved.

Audio: Why not all Research is Free – Constitutional Limits of Science

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Rüdiger Wolfrum, Heidelberg

In Germany, the freedom of science and research is guaranteed without any explicit limits in the basic German law. What does this mean for researchers? Rüdiger Wolfrum, a professor for law, explains in his talk when the government can impose standards for safe research and restrict the publication of the results of certain research, despite this constitutional guarantee of the freedom of research.

Audio: Finding the Balance Between Fear and Progress

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Michael Specter, The New Yorker

The term "dual use" is a technical one. But it is not as special a category as one might think. Everything has dual use, says journalist Michael Specter: Planes are amazing inventions for transporting people and things but they can also be used as weapons, as happened on September 11th, 2001. As far as viruses are concerned, it is the job of science to do as much research as possible, so that we can understand how they work and find vaccines or other ways to contain them. And is the scientist’s job to explain to the wider public what exactly it is they are doing and what good it can do.

Audio: Moral and Ethical Responsibilities of Life Scientists – During Revolutionary Times

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David A. Relman, Stanford School of Medicine

This is the biological century, believes David Relman. He is professor for medicine and microbiology at Stanford University, has done research on infectious diseases, and has advised the US government on future biological threats. In his talk, he explains how research in the life sciences today is very different from how it used to be.



"Dual Use Research on Microbes: Biosafety, Biosecurity, Responsibility" is a symposium in collaboration with the Max Planck Society.