An important issue in the public health area today is dual use research and technology, a topic that often remains unspoken about and unknown to the public. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “dual use research of concern (DURC) is life sciences research that is intended for benefit, but which might easily be misapplied to do harm”.Although life sciences research is vital to improving public health, agriculture, the environment, and to strengthening our national security and economy, “the very research designed to better the health, welfare, and safety of mankind can also yield information or technologies that could potentially be misused for harmful purposes” (1). This type of research is referred to as “dual use” research.
As “the issues are broad and encompass not only research and public health, but also security, scientific publishing and public communications, biotechnology, and ethics and wider societal issues” (2), the misuse of public health research, either accidentally or intentionally, has been a concern of scientists for many years. A Norwegian public health expert I talked to explained to me that it is relatively simple to create a pathogen once an individual has obtained DNA, which they could then use to harm others. However, “it is a difficult issue because in order to secure the health of the public it is more important to share information, rather than to block that communication pathway”, as sharing information can help countries join forces in keeping individuals healthy.
Another issue in the realm of dual use technology and research is how to regulate the new pathogens created. A Japanese public health expert shared with me that “to prevent biological weapons, you have to control or regulate the possession of pathogens. Many countries ban the possession of pathogens but how do you effectively control new pathogens that are not named in the law?” This difficult question has varied answers, none of which perfectly encompass the varied ways in which pathogens can be regulated. One option would “be to focus on the technical aspects, e.g. just possession of a part of, say, ricin and just ban the DNA cord. However, that method still has flaws, for example, how do you best define what needs to be banned?”. Also, the question of what is considered research remains.
In the United States, the US Government’s oversight of Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC) “is aimed at preserving the benefits of life sciences research while minimizing the risk of misuse of the knowledge, information, products, or technologies provided by such research” (3). Additionally, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) is “chartered to provide advice, guidance, and leadership regarding biosecurity oversight of dual use research to all Federal departments and agencies with an interest in life sciences research” (4). This Federal advisory committee also shares recommendations and strategies for the “efficient and effective oversight of federally conducted or supported dual use biological research and related issues, taking into consideration national security concerns and the needs of the research community” (4).
If this is a topic of interest for you, check out the link below for a great video on dual use research produced by the National Institutes of Health (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services):