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Commentary

The Evil Twin of Research: Bioterror

March 16, 2004|Elisa D. Harris | Elisa D. Harris is a senior research scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and former director for nonproliferation and export controls at the National Security Council (1993-2001).

Advances in modern biology offer great opportunities, but they can also pose grave risks.

In recent years, Australian scientists exploring ways to control the mouse population created a super virus that ended up killing all the mice instead of sterilizing them. Here at home, researchers interested in understanding why the body rejects organ transplants discovered a possible way of making some viruses closely related to smallpox more deadly. And government scientists attempting to prevent the spread of the bird flu virus among humans have been trying to make a more lethal form of the virus to determine whether such a strain might emerge.

All are examples of what is called dual-use research -- scientific experiments that can have beneficial applications or be used for destructive purposes, either deliberately or inadvertently.

Prompted by a National Academy of Sciences report issued last October, the Bush administration has created a board to advise U.S. government agencies on how to reduce the risk that legitimate research will be used for hostile purposes. The board will develop guidelines for oversight of dual-use research and for the dissemination of research results. It will also develop codes of conduct and training programs for scientists and laboratory workers.

These are welcome steps, but they are not enough. As Elias Zerhouni, the director of the National Institutes of Health, acknowledged when the new board was announced, it will have "no real authority." It will therefore do little to prevent the misuse of dual-use research in the United States and nothing at all to prevent misuse abroad.

To begin with, any oversight guidelines developed by the board will apply only to government laboratories or those receiving federal dollars. Many commercial facilities will therefore remain entirely outside the scope of the system.

Even the government agencies that conduct or fund relevant research will not be required to accept or implement the board's recommendations. All of the affected agencies have agreed to encourage compliance, but any of them can choose to opt out.

And classified government research -- including work on defenses against biological weapons, which last year's National Academy of Sciences report singled out as posing particular dual-use problems -- would remain outside the scope of the guidelines.

Finally, because the board was created by the executive branch rather than through legislative action, it can easily be disbanded after its charter expires in two years. That means the board is unlikely to command the budget and staff resources necessary to be an influential voice for biosecurity within the federal government.

Two steps are required for an effective biosecurity policy.

First, the scientists carrying out dual-use research and the facilities where this research takes place should be licensed.

Second, all proposals to conduct relevant research should be reviewed by scientific peers before being carried out so that the potential benefits can be weighed against the possible risks.

The creation of an American advisory board does nothing to address the risks posed by dual-use biological research in other countries. We must find a way to apply these oversight requirements comprehensively on a mandatory basis and on a global scale.

The knowledge and the technologies that could be misused for destructive purposes are widely available around the world. In 2002, for example, about 60% of the nearly 14,000 manuscripts submitted to 11 key scientific journals in the U.S. included foreign authors, from more than 100 countries.

Only when all institutions, whether in the United States or any other participating country, are required to follow the same rules will an effective biosecurity response be achieved.

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