Medical, biological and agricultural developments often require research that involves various pathogenic microorganisms. Research that could also possibly be misapplied to pose a threat to public health, animal health or the environment is referred to as ‘dual-use’ research.
‘Dual use’ implies that the biological agents and knowledge about these agents can be used for two different purposes. On the one hand, many pathogenic organisms are very important to research and development in the fields of medicine, biology and agriculture. However, some of these organisms can also be used to develop biological weapons that may pose a threat to public health and the environment.
The term ‘dual-use research’ can be extended with the words ‘of concern’. ‘Dual-use research of concern’ is the type of research that could be misused directly and whereby such misuse would have major consequences. The consequences of misuse may not only concern the number of casualties, but also large-scale social disruption.
In 2007, the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) was commissioned by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to draw up a Code of Conduct for Biosecurity. This code of conduct is aimed at raising awareness of the risks of working with high-risk pathogens. At the end of 2013, the KNAW also published the advisory report ‘Improving biosecurity – Assessment of dual-use research.’ These two documents contain codes of conduct and guidelines that help scientists and organisations when dealing with dual-use research.
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;
• Shipment and transport.
For more information
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 1 November 2013, the KNAW published an advisory report entitled ‘Improving Biosecurity – Assessing dual-use research’. The report states that the primary responsibility for dealing with potential dual-use risks of life sciences research lies with the researchers and parties in the knowledge chain. Recommendations to take certain measures should be substantiated with reference to the biological or physical properties of the object of research. In addition, they should refer to the potential and foreseeable social and political consequences. The KNAW advises establishing a Biosecurity Advisory Committee that can offer advice on any potential dual-use aspects of research proposals. The government has given an official response to this report.
For more information:
The H5N1 debate is one example that fully illustrates the risks of misuse of scientific knowledge.
The potential risks of research in life sciences became world news in 2012, when a Rotterdam-based research group wanted to publish a paper on the mutations that make the influenza A H5N1 virus (better known as the bird flu virus) transmissible through air between mammals. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity advised against publishing the full version of the paper. Any data or information that could be used to deliberately develop or spread a mutant H5N1 virus should be left out, it said. The Dutch Government required the researchers to obtain an export licence before sending the papers out for publication, citing a European Union Regulation that puts limits on the export of dual-use technology (Council Regulation (EC) no. 428/2009, replaced by 2021/821). This EU Regulation states that EU Member States must have a system of export control in place to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons, among other things. In this case, it was about the export of knowledge and research results relating to the bird flu virus, in the form of a publication. After the licence was granted, the publication appeared in Science (June 2012). The research group subsequently filed an appeal against the government’s decision to require an export licence, because an appendix to the regulation states that controls do not apply to ‘basic scientific research’ or to ‘transfer of technology’. However, the competent court declared that because the researchers had demonstrated with their research that it is possible to make the virus transmissible through air – and because this is aimed at realising a practical objective – it can therefore be linked to the proliferation of biological weapons.
Link to the court case (Dutch)