The life sciences provide a great opportunity to improve our lives. But our newfound power in this field also gives us the means to destroy ourselves.
In 2002, Dr Eckard Wimmer and his lab at the State University of New York, published the results of a very interesting experiment.
The scientists had successfully synthesised polio from its base pairs, building it from the ground up. The result was very significant.
The good news was that the group had proved that a virus — and potentially larger organisms — could be pieced together from base chemicals. This was important not only for science, but for medicine: Wimmer and his group later used their results to offer a new method of creating vaccines.
The bad news was that this meant that, in theory, any virus could be constructed by just about anyone with the right equipment and the inclination to do so.
Bioterrorists, it was thought, could now construct anthrax, ebola, and even smallpox, which was eradicated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1980, without getting their hands on living samples.
This capacity for use and misuse is known to bioethicists as the “dual-use dilemma.”
The study on polio is a classic case of dual use, where research has the potential to bring us great benefits, but also enormous potential harms.
The time is ripe
Bioterrorism is a serious concern because it is believed groups like al-Qaeda have the motivation to use dangerous pathogens.
Clandestine national biological weapons programs are also still a possibility.
So, dual-use research presents a serious worry at the same time as presenting the potential to advance medicine in leaps and bounds; creating a vibrant new “bio-economy” and greatly enhancing our well being.
Despite the risks of dual use, most of us still believe the gains science offers us are too good to pass up. We also tend to believe that we shouldn’t restrict people’s activities unless we have an exceptional reason to do so.
How, then, can we proceed with scientific research while ensuring global safety from bio-threats?
Taking the first step in this direction, the WHO recently released a guidance document titled “Responsible life sciences research for global health security.”
The guidelines focus on promoting public health while limiting the potential for bioterrorism or bio-warfare, by addressing three key areas of responsible research.
The first is research excellence - to promote a strong culture of research in bolstering global public health.
Drug-resistant tuberculosis, novel strains of influenza, and other pandemic diseases pose a genuine threat to human health on a large scale, and new scientific research should help combat these diseases.
The guidelines call for compliance with International Health Regulations to enhance responsiveness to health problems internationally.
Then there’s ethics: to conduct research responsibly and accountably and identify the potential for misuse before it happens.
This includes strengthening the culture of responsibility in the life sciences through ethics education and outreach.
It also means holding institutions and researchers accountable for the research they undertake and encouraging them to pursue their research responsibly.
The third is biosafety and laboratory security. By preventing accidental release or theft of dangerous substances, we can reduce the potential for life sciences being used to harm us while capitalizing on the benefits of new discoveries.
Coupled with measures to increase awareness of the ethical issues associated with dual-use science, the WHO guidelines promote safe, secure and responsible research.
But they are not a complete solution to the problem of dual-use. Scientists are not security experts: it would be naive to assume that they can anticipate the consequences of their work without collaborating with others.
Relying exclusively on personal responsibility in the face of biological weapons would be unwise.
So there’s much left to do to adequately guard against the twin spectres of bioterrorism and pandemic disease while promoting public health.
What more needs to be done?
First, the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1972 needs to be strengthened in order to prevent the spread of biological weapons.
This year marks the Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention. Hopefully, it will bring countries closer to creating an effective mechanism for preventing the spread of biological weapons.
Global health inequalities provide conditions for the emergence of drug resistant strains of diseases thought eradicated in the developed world and pose a constant threat to everyone.
Until global public health is more equal, we are all at risk.
The public must also be educated about the risks of the malevolent use of science. The Cold War brought these risks to the fore, but with its passing, the misuse of science and technology receives less attention than it should.
As the bioeconomy grows and advanced biotechnology becomes as ubiquitous as information technology, public education should ensure an informed and responsible citizenry.
We must all seek a responsible solution that gives us the gains we want, while guarding against a darker bio-weapons future.