Physicians, biologists and other scientists in the field of natural and life sciences sometimes use disease-causing microorganisms in their research and in the development of products for well-intended applications. When the same research or product development can also be applied or deployed to threaten or harm people, animals or the environment, this is called 'dual-use research'.

The concept of "dual-use" means that knowledge, information, methods, products or technologies developed for peaceful and legitimate purposes can be misused for harmful purposes. In the case of research, this is referred to as “dual-use research”. Dual-use research refers to well-intentioned research that can also be misused.

Dual-use research that requires only minimal or no modifications before it can be misused is called 'dual-use research of concern' (DURC). Only part of the dual-use research is dual-use research of concern. The various concepts related to dual-use and export control are explained in this animation.

In 2007, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) published the biosecurity code of conduct on behalf of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. The aim of this code of conduct is to create awareness about the risks of working with high-risk pathogens. The advisory report "Improving Biosecurity - Assessing dual-use research" was published in 2013. These documents contain codes of conduct and guidelines for scientists and organizations on how to deal with dual-use research.

To identify research, technologies and knowledge with possible dual-use properties and to manage associated risks without hindering the potential benefits of this research, the Dual-Use Quickscan can be used. The Biosecurity Bureau has developed the Dual-Use Quickscan for researchers to recognize and map potential dual-use risks of research. This tool is the first step in the process of dual-use assessment and contributes to increasing awareness of dual-use among researchers.

Code of Conduct for Biosecurity

The Code of Conduct for Biosecurity was drawn up by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). It is aimed at preventing the misuse of biological agents and toxins that can be used to develop biological weapons.

Under the authority of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, the KNAW set up a Biosecurity Working Group that was instructed to draw up the Code of Conduct for Biosecurity. The aim of the code is to prevent life sciences research or its application from contributing to the misuse of biological agents. It raises awareness among professionals in the life sciences of the possible risks of misuse of knowledge from life sciences research. The code of conduct is intended for organisations, institutes and companies that work or deal with high-risk biological agents.
The code lays down rules of conduct related to the following issues:
• Raising awareness;
• Research and publication policy;
• Accountability and oversight;
• Internal and external communication;
• Accessibility;
• Shipment and transport.

For more information

KNAW - Code of Conduct - 2007

KNAW advisory report ‘Improving Biosecurity’

The KNAW advisory report ‘Improving Biosecurity’ was written in response to the H5N1 debate. An important recommendation in this report is that scientists and safety experts should get together to discuss potential risks at an early stage.

Following the H5N1 debate, the State Secretary for Education, Culture and Science asked the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) to advise on how to deal with dual-use research, i.e. life sciences research that can be used for two different purposes. Specifically, the State Secretary wanted to know the following:
• How dual-use research should be assessed?
• Who should assess dual-use research?

On November 1, 2013, the KNAW issued the advice 'Improving Biosecurity - Assessing dual-use research' was released. The advice emphasizes that the primary responsibility for dealing with possible dual-use risks of research in the life sciences lies with scientists and parties in the knowledge community. Advice on possible measures should be substantiated with references to the biological or physical properties of the research object, as well as to possible social and political consequences that can be foreseen. The KNAW recommends the establishment of a Biosecurity Advisory Committee that can address issues relating to possible dual-use aspects of research. In 2015, the government formulated a response to this report in a letter to parliament.

For more information:

KNAW advisory report ‘Improving Biosecurity’ (PDF)

H5N1 debate

The H5N1 debate is one example that fully illustrates the risks of misuse of scientific knowledge.

In 2012, the possible risks of research in the life sciences became world news when a Rotterdam research group wanted to publish about mutations that made the influenza A H5N1 virus (bird flu virus) air-transmissible between mammals. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity recommended not publishing the article in full and omitting information that could potentially be misused to deliberately develop or spread the H5N1 variants in question.

The Dutch government stated that an export license had to be requested for the publication of the article on the basis of the European Regulation for the export of Dual-use goods (EC no. 2021/821). This regulation requires Member States of the European Union to set up a control system to prevent the spread of, among other things, biological weapons. In this case it concerned the export of knowledge and research results about the bird flu virus in the form of a publication. After the permit was granted, the publication appeared in the scientific journal Science in June 2012.

The research group then filed an appeal with the North Holland District Court against the obligation to apply for an export license. According to an annex to the regulation, licensing schemes do not apply to "basic scientific research" and to "technology transfer". The judge ruled that the research group had demonstrated through its research that it is possible to make the virus in question transmissible through the air, which is aimed at achieving a practical goal and can be linked to the spread of biological weapons. The court ruled in favor of the Dutch state and emphasized that preventing bioterror is more important than sharing knowledge about the pathogenesis and spread of the virus.

After this ruling, the research group appealed and the Amsterdam Court of Appeal ruled. The judge ruled that the interested parties had no case at all, because the research group had already agreed to an export license for the publication of their data. Therefore, afterwards they had no grounds to question its necessity and usefulness. The Amsterdam Court of Appeal annulled both the court's ruling and the ruling on objection. The North Holland court should therefore not have made a ruling in the first instance and cannot rule on the principled significance of possible comparable future cases.