Debunking myths on genetics and DNA

Friday, June 29, 2012

Dual-use research of concern

I'm still reading (and very much enjoying) last Friday's Science issue on the flu pandemic. In [1], Anthony Fauci and Francis Collins summarize very well why the flu presents a potential threat:
"Influenza viruses have animal reservoirs, especially in birds and pigs. They can undergo extensive genetic changes and even jump species, sometimes resulting in a virus to which humans may be highly vulnerable."
Over the last hundred years, this happened four times: in 1918 (the Spanish flu), in 1957 (the Asian flu), in 1968 (Hong Kong flu), and, the last time, in 2009 with the H1N1 pandemic (swine flu). H5N1 has not initiated a pandemic because it is rarely passed between humans and it infects only through direct contact with infected birds. So far there have been about 600 total cases, of which nearly 60% have resulted in deaths (though this last number is likely to be inflated as often not all non-fatal cases are reported to hospitals). Given these statistics, if the virus were to spread more easily (for example through sneezing or coughing), this would entirely change the threat level, hence the concern when two labs independently announced that they had found an H5N1 mutant able to spread through aerosol in ferrets.
"One of the goals of pandemic influenza research is to recognize and anticipate how viruses are evolving in the wild toward a phenotype that is dangerous to humans, thereby staying one step ahead of potential pandemics."
That's why studies like the ones conducted on ferrets are so important. Yes, the virus was genetically engineered in a lab, but once you have it, you can address the following questions: how likely are those mutations to appear spontaneously? Can we use the virus to produce a vaccine? Are the current antiviral drugs successful in containing the infection or is there a need to develop new drugs?
"However, whenever one deliberately manipulates a virus or a microbe, it is always possible, at least theoretically, that the research results could be used by bioterrorists to intentionally cause harm, or that an accidental release of a pathogen from a laboratory could inadvertently cause harm."
Any research that presents such dual potential of benefit and risk/threat is referred as DURC, which stands for dual-use research of concern. The controversy around the two H5N1 papers clearly proves that we need better ways to assess and regulate DURC research, as well as mitigating the risks while highlighting the benefits.
"There is still no consensus on how to practically define DURC; whether it is feasible to identify and regulate DURC experiments; how to address risks associated with DURC; and how to balance this risk with the necessity of fostering life sciences research for public health and biodefense [2]."
It is a necessity for scientists to be open about their research. Research is rarely conducted in isolation. Open discussion is what fuels great ideas. A DURC policy that requires new protocols and manuscript redactions threatens this openness. Furthermore, it isn't feasible to retroactively restrict scientific information since most scientists are required to write reports describing their current research, as well as give talks and presentations at official meetings. When the NSABB made its recommendation not to publish the two H5N1 studies last year, it was probably already too late. Many people in the scientific community had already heard sufficient details, even prior to their publication.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

[1] Anthony S. Fauci,, & Francis S. Collins (2012). Benefits and Risks of Influenza Research: Lessons Learned
Science, 336 (6088), 1522-1523

[2] Carrie D. Wolinetz (2012). Implementing the New U.S. Dual-Use Policy
Science, 336 (6088), 1525-1527


  1. I think you are absolutely correct. The research is important in understanding how to effectively combat such virus and also, as you say, once the mention of the process of creating the H5N1 variant was made, the cat was out of the bag anyway for anyone knowledgeable about such matters.

    1. Yes, that's exactly the problem so that in the end there isn't any real choice about it... Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. Thanks for the update on this discussion. I think it would be hard or impossible to selectively withhold information, for very long anyway.

    Did you find my email message in response to your comment? I sent it to your gmail address.


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