OPCW Watch-dog gets its Day in the Sun

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü addresses the media on 11 October 2013 on the occasion of the organisation's winning of the Nobel Peace Prize.

OPCW Director-General Ahmet Üzümcü addresses the media on 11 October 2013 on the occasion of the organisation’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize.

Last week, the  Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an international organization designed to prevent the development, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons won a Nobel Prize. Regimes do this sometimes – the EU won last year.  

Nobel Prizes are strange things in the age of twitter and blogs. Ostensibly, the purpose of  the prize is to reward those who make outstanding contributions to science, medicine, literature and peace – however the significance of these awards to society is a little more complicated. Following the announcement of the award, the press,  Twitter and the blogosphere was awash with discussions of the wisdom of the award.  Some  commentators were pleased, usually referring to the determined  and unsung work of the institution. Some made observations  about the timing of the award- referring to the chemical weapon massacre which recently took place in Syria. Others pointed to other contenders for the prize.  Finally, a few took the opportunity to criticise the institution. These criticisms  ranged from the insinuation of hypocrisy with regard to old chemical weapon stockpiles still awaiting destruction in the US and Russia (which has proved a complicated  and expensive process), to shady illuminate style characterizations of the OPCW.

The OPCW Nobel prize serves to  remind us of a few things about the nature of the relationship between societies and institutions which aim to keep abhorrent weapons out of reach. The first, is that such institutions occasionally suffer guilt by association. Most people never think about biological or chemical weapons – and when they do, repulsion is a common response.  These responses are sometimes directed at the very institutions which seek to prevent such atrocities. The Second, is that public, and to some extent political attention to chemical and biological weapons is sporadic. This attention also tends to be most focused  at times in which shortcomings in the ability of world leaders and institutions to predict and prevent the use of such weapons are revealed.

However, there has also been a final, more constructive sentiment, which  emphasises  the continued work behind the scenes in the times of lulls in public attention.   A key hope is  that the current boost given by this award will galvanise support for existing work being done at the OPCW –  in order to keep the watch-dog fit and alert.

That said, the response to this award should not be uncritical support of the OPCW. Instead it should be seen as an opportunity for a range of stakeholders such as scientists, governments, NGO’s- and indeed publics,  to reflect on how to help prevent and mitigate similar atrocities in the future.

Brett Edwards, Research Officer,  Biochemsec2030.org

Below is a talk by  of Dr.  Daniel Feakes.  Strategy and Policy Adviser at Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Within this talk he considers the impact of the OPCW Nobel Prize

From Ypres to Syria: Science, Technology and the Norm Against Biochemical Weapons

Poison Gas Attack, First World War. wikicommons

Poison Gas Attack, First World War. wikicommons

The threat of biological and chemical weapon atrocities, by states or sub-state actors is ever present but often ignored.   In recent history, the use and development of such weapons has usually been associated with political responses designed to prevent against the use of such abhorrent weapons in the future. Throughout the twentieth century several states sustained large chemical and biological weapon development programmes– there is also a long history of use.  It in this context that the biological and chemical weapons conventions have developed internationally. These conventions include a web of international and national measured designed to prevent and mitigate the threat posed by the use of such weapons.  The majority of states, but not all, are signatories to these treaties. A wide number of institutions, including scientific institutions and civil society groups,  also play a key role in the functioning of these treaties.


Dark pasts: Shiro Ishii,  a scientist and commander of Unit 731, a covert chemical and biological weapon development active in the 1930s and 1940s. This unit killed thousands of people in secret weapon tests.

However, despite the development of  these regimes, such weapons continue to be of military significance to states and sub-state terrorist groups.  That is to say, while  the majority of the international community agree that there are ‘no right hands’ for such weapons- these weapons have continued to hold appeal for some- in the case of some terrorists, precisely because they illicit such terror and disgust.  Advances in S&T continue to threaten to make such weapons even more alluring to these actors.

As recent events in Syria have also demonstrated, some states have continued to develop these weapons, despite their illegality. Likewise,  perceived threat of  biological and chemical terrorism to states has ensured that many states continue to invest in  (legal) defensive measures against the threat of use. Some  activities supported within defensive programmes may in themselves contribute to increased risk perceptions among states, who struggle to distinguish between offensive and defensive  programmes in the context of state secrecy.

Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980. Eradication was based on advances in science, technology as well as public health.  The causative agent now only offically exisits in two military labs, one in Russia and one in the US. The research which continues on this pathogen is a cause of concern for some commentators. This is because some research involves making more virulent and deadly strains of the smallpox pathogen

Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1980. Eradication was based on advances in science, technology as well as public health. The causative agent of smallpox Variola vera  is now the most tightly regulated of all pathogens .  Offically, Variola vera exists in two military labs, one in Russia and one in the US. The research which continues on this pathogen is worrying for some commentators. This is because some research involves making more virulent and deadly strains of the smallpox pathogen, and raises safety and security concerns. However, others have argued that such research is essential to improving  understanding. (image wikicommons)

Historically, advances in S&T have been intimately associated with military developments.  In recent years, the scientific community has increasingly been called upon to help in the development of existing systems of oversight, in order to help ensure against the misuse of scientific knowledge, laboratories, equipment and re-agents.   Problematically however, awareness  and owner ship  of this issue is absent in much of the scientific community. Added to this, there remains a requirement to improve how scientific and technological expertise is utilized in the context of the national and international regimes directed against chemical and biological weapons.

Developments in systems of  bio-chemical security have  been particularly determined by the character of geo- politics. There is a need for  better understanding  of how two way education and communication can circumvent the contested character of geo-politics, and result in responsive governance and oversight. This problem  can be understood to involve a situation  in which actors struggle within constraining political contexts to account for and respond to the speed of change within biochemical science and technology.

Science, by its very nature is about moving beyond the status quo. We can see advances in biological and chemical sciences especially in the last 10 years pointing towards the increasing control over the basic components of biological and chemical materials. Perhaps even more fantastical for those that are not familiar with these developments, are the increasing overlap between the biological and chemical sciences.  This includes the increasing extent to which biological systems can be utilized to produce complex chemicals, and the way in which components of complex biological systems are being synthesized through man-made chemical  processes.  This development towards a bio-chemical science is an important example of how advances in S&T can undermine existing approaches to oversight, in ways which are currently foreseen, and potentially unforeseen within existing governance regimes.

The issue of convergence  reveals the extent to which the development of governance systems is heavily influenced by geo-politics.  Under international law, biological and chemical weapons are dealt with under two very distinctive regimes- which account for developments in S&T in different ways.

An examination of the history of these regimes, reveals the fundamental that geo-politics has played. In the case of the CWC systems are in place to verify state compliance.  The human and financial resources for S&T revew are also entrenched within the institution. In contrast, the BWC lacks a system of verification, as well as any significant institutional report for S&T review.  Attempts to improve this situation, have been repeatedly undermined due to geo-political tensions.

In other words, geo-political agency moves slowly. In the future, how might arms control mechanisms be able to manage, govern and restrict changes in science and technology? The problem, as one might expect is not new. Yet the nature of changes in the study of bio-chemistry and how they relate to technologies that could both protect and destroy man-kind are of an order we may not have seen since the advent of atomic energy.

It has become increasingly clear that new thinking is required to overcome the obstacles to improving the responsiveness of CBW regimes to developments in S&T.

While there is a consensus on the problem, we lack one on the solution.

Professor David Galbreath, Principle investigator

David J. Galbreath is Professor of International Security at the University of Bath and Editor-in-Chief of European Security. Prof. Galbreath’s work focuses on security governance and international regimes in the areas of ethnic conflict, minority politics and confidence and security building measures. More recently, his research has begun to science and security governance in the areas of biological and chemical warfare and arms control. Funded by the ESRC and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Prof Galbreath is working on the underlying problems of arms control governance under conditions of rapid scientific developments. The project brings together his work on regime effectiveness, technology and defense, and international policy implementation. Prof Galbreath directs the Conflict and Security Research Group in the Bath Institute for Policy Research.

Brett Edwards, Research Officer

Brett Edwards is a PhD candidate at the University of Bath.  His PhD examines the governance of dual-use aspects of the field of synthetic biology, within in the US and the UK. His PhD is Wellcome funded and Is part of a multi-university project entitled Building a Sustainable Capacity for Dual-use Bioethics.  Brett has also worked for 6-months as a research officer on a Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded project on S&T review within the  Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Recently, he  also completed a research fellowship  at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust.   Brett has a dual undergraduate background in Biology and Politics, and holds a MA in Biotechnological Law and Ethics (University of Sheffield, 2009).

Bird Flu and Dual-Use: What Can Bioethics Bring to the Table?

This article addresses several key themes related to the way in which academics, and particularly, philosophers can engage with dual-use issues. This includes questions  about expertise, disciplinarity and the  philosophical processes of unraveling complex issues. This piece also reflects the historical neglect of dual-use issues in academic fields that address the ethical implications of new and emerging technologies.  This article is written by Nicholas G. Evans, an Adjunct Research Associate at The Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University, who spends his time split between research into dual-use in the life sciences, professional ethics, and military ethics.

Being asked to write about dual-use issues as a ‘bioethicist’ is quite a daunting task. This is in part due to the fact that the ‘field’ of dual-use bioethics is nascent and sparsely populated. The field is also a broad church which includes, but is not limited to,  scholars with backgrounds in theology, law, medicine, sociology, anthropology, and history. Many of these scholars also work in very different national contexts in which culture and legislative framework vary. These differences relate to how the life sciences are funded, practiced and regulated as well as  how innovation is orientated within states to promote human health and security.

I’m also hesitant to talk about “bioethics” because philosophers do not represent the majority of bioethicists. Examination of  how constructed norms inform scientific practices; work on codes of conduct in different countries; and historical analysis  of the relationships between the life sciences, and national and security establishments may all plausibly be called bioethics. However,much of this research comes from a place that isn’t philosophy.

So with that in mind, I’d like to talk about the role of philosophers in bioethics and dual-use as I see it evolving—or at least, as it is playing out in my research. This perspective had its genesis in a long and most enjoyable argument  which occurred on a balmy evening in Bristol in 2010[1], during a trip I made to the UK under the Wellcome Trust-funded grant “Building a Sustainable Capacity in Dual-Use Bioethics.” Though I may be guilty of some self-justification, it is important understand why philosophers play a part in the dual-use debate, and what they’ve contributed so far. In this, I can only speak for myself, though I’ll try to present ideas in a way that I hope my colleagues can endorse. This is despite sometimes feeling—as an Australian philosopher studying dual-use issues—as strange and out-of-place as the animals that are emblematic of my country.

A Perspective on the Role of Philosophy

The ethics that philosophers are typically charged with practicing tends to be caricatured as studying and posing comprehensive theories of right and wrong, but that’s not all we can (or should!) do. At its core—at least as far as I’m concerned—moral philosophy deals with enquiry into the way that acts, as well as the  motivations and consequences of acts relate to values. This can occur in a number of ways, but I want to pick up on  two which are important to the study of dual-use. First, philosophers can describe the types of values promoted by certain acts with an eye to sketching out the ethical landscape in areas that are ethically fraught. Second,  philosophers can do more than just describe and engage in critical reflection about particular choices, informed by evidence, and show where certain lines of reasoning succeed or fail to produce the arguer’s conclusions.

Dual-use, ultimately, requires both types of engagement. Dual-use deals with radically uncertain states of affairs; particular pieces of research have the potential to enable  some act of bioterrorism. These are problems not open to easy quantification, much less resolution. Concepts such as academic freedom, rights to freedom of speech, security, and even human health are so contested—essentially so—that parsing what different conceptions of these terms mean for our arguments and policies is vital. Dual-use is fundamentally a question of values, and it is here that philosophers can make important contributions.


To show what I mean, consider the controversy surrounding the publication of “gain of function” research on highly pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza. Two groups of scientists submitted research for publication in Nature and Science; both pieces of research had produced modified strains of H5N1 which were transmissible between ferrets (used in research as experimental models for humans). The National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity initially recommended that the research not be published, but later changed its recommendations in light of revisions to the submitted papers.

Scientists, including but not limited to those involved, claimed that the research raised awareness of the significant threat of H5N1 to public health, was useful in promoting disease surveillance and would assist in the development of vaccines. More significantly, these claims were used as, or as part of, justifications for why the research should be published— that is to say, why the benefits of the research outweighed the risks of misuse.

ASMBiodefense 2012 - H5N1 Research Discussion(Photo by Chris Condayan)

Fouchier ASMBiodefense 2012  H5N1 Research Discussion(Photo by Chris Condayan)

Examining and questioning these claims is in part an empirical task; one pursued by people such as Paul Keim and Michael Osterholm. But these are also fundamentally ethical claims that rely on certain assumptions about what is or is not valuable, and the structure of particular values. Those that advocated  the publication of the research made appeals involving claims about the value of certain scientific advances, and we should judge their position based on the merit of those appeals.

Importantly, arguments based on the public health benefits of the H5N1 studies eschewed important aspects of the ways that public health gains are distributed. The virus on which Ron Fouchier’s team (who published in Science) conducted their research was of Indonesian origin; Indonesia has in the past been brutally honest about its concerns that the benefits derived from research on Indonesian strains of flu never make it back home. Appealing to the public health benefits of research into H5N1 should, on some level, acknowledge that those benefits depend on a lot of other factors. Understanding how health benefits and risks are distributed, and what distributions are acceptable, is an important consideration that was overlooked by those touting the benefits of the H5N1 dual-use research.

Moreover, while advocates claim this research will improve disease survailance, these methods are not necessarily widely available in the countries most affected by H5N1. This, again, introduces questions about  access and equity into relation to claims about the benefits of dual-use research. These questions are important, because claims about risks and benefits should be sensitive to who is benefiting. If those most in need are those least likely the benefit, there is an issue of equality at play; if those who, like the Indonesians, help us better prepare for public health emergencies but are themselves left vulnerable, this issue of equality becomes an issue of fairness.

Writers on dual-use can at times be criticized of catastrophising the outcomes of particular types of research. Yet sometimes those advocating for dual-use research suffer the opposite problem, by presenting problematically ideal outcomes from the beneficial uses of their research. Who is most likely to be helped or harmed matters, because commitments to fairness are important. Different people have different conceptions of what is fair, and how much that matters relative to other considerations, but few would deny that an unfair transaction is problematic.

Dual-Use, Bioethics, and Philosophy

Dual-use issues involve radical uncertainty, and conflicts of value. These observations all point to complex ethical questions about the balance between freedom to publish and security, how we ought to measure the benefits of scientific research, and the proper role of medical research in promoting public health. This is most certainly a job for the field  bioethics,  which  has historically addressed questions about the appropriate function of medicine and medical research- but neglected dual-use issues. It is also a job in which philosophers can play an important role.

Philosophers are not the only people who play a role in interrogating these values and their underlying assumptions, but our familiarity with understanding and conceptualizing value can usefully contribute to larger debates about how we ought to make decisions. We’ve commented on the balance between openness and security; how appeals to the value of scientific research are dependent on certain contingent assumptions about the world; about the value of freedom of inquiry as it pertains to scientific self-regulation; and the way that claims about security are tied to other hidden claims about value. Looking into the future, philosophers should be encouraged to engage with other experts on resolving dual-use dilemmas.

For further discussion of the role of ethics in dual-use issues why not check out the Building a Sustainable Capacity for Dual-use Bioethics project website?  This website has a series of monographs on the nature and prospect of the ethical governance of dual-use issues.  

[1] Yes, I’m an Australian referring to the weather in Bristol as “balmy.”

Parachuting Pigs, Toxic Tipple and Political Posturing

Gabe King discusses the political pantomimes which sometimes surround the discussion of dual-use issues. He deals with a specific variety of dual-use issue, which occurs at an international level.  Specifically, he examines the problem that  ostensibly peaceful state funded research might be interpreted to ‘cross the line’ into illegal offensive bioweapon research. His article examines recent accusations about a Lab in Tbilisi, Georgia.  His article leads us to consider the value of verification in relation to national research capacities.

Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s Chief Medical Officer and head of ‘RosPotrebNadzor’ the Russian consumer protection agency claimed late last month that a U.S funded bio-lab in Georgia posed, “a direct threat” to Russia and a “Direct violation of the BWC”.  This statement was further echoed by Vyacheslav Tetekin, a member of the Dumas Committee on Defense, who stated“ there is perception that biological weapons are beginning to be used by the Americans more and more widely. I see this situation from the point of view of national security”. Both officials firmly accuse the Georgian authorities of kowtowing to their U.S puppet masters.

The ‘Richard G Lugar Center for Public Health Research’ in Tbilisi, which is at the center of this spat, saw a U.S investment of US$150 million into the state of the art lab.  Of course Georgian officials were quick to point out the absurdity of the comments and further highlighted the point that Russian personnel had already inspected the facilities and, in fact, any expert or specialist was welcome to do the same.  Whilst the likelihood of such a facility being used for a covert biological weapons programme seems remote, it is crucial to note that the specter of dual-use potential still looms large in the minds of some.

Onishchenko had, earlier this year, claimed that Georgia deliberately introduced African Swine Fever (ASF) to Russia by parachuting in a regiment of infected pigs.  This claim seems to compliment his earlier fears that food and wine may be poisoned by the Georgians, presumably as some kind of retribution for the 2008 war.  It also seems to have the added bonus of being yet another opportunity to lash out at the US, its approach to international security, and its allies.

The script between the U.S and Russia is by now almost farcical with the two sides co-opting into a familiar tango.  The U.S continues to highlight the opacity surrounding the Russian Biodefense programme, compliance issues and the inheritance of Soviet activities. In retort the Russians ask for evidence and then point to dubious dual-use activities and the U.S refusal to create verification mechanisms for the BWC.  Whilst, for the rest of us, it seems that the science and real threats are usually cast aside for yet another round of political point scoring.  These competing and constructed narratives fail to enhance security for any nation, instead they continue to fuel a cycle of anxiety that should have long since passed.

It is worth remembering that problems with dual-use technologies are not confined to the laboratory, indeed perception and Spin can be just as dangerous a weapon as any pathogen. Rhetoric and posturing serve only to fuel the security dilemmas of old and detract from key biotech breakthroughs, and new emerging challenges in the security environment.  The continued lack of verification protocols in the BWC coupled with the often opaque (and in the case of Russia, some might argue covert) nature of biodefense research will continue to pose a significant threat to international security.

And whilst parachuting pigs and poisoned wine from Georgia may seem like an absurd threat to some, these ideas continue to be perpetuated by those who seek to utilise scientific discovery for political gain.  In the dual-use world, sound and responsible scientific research needs to be complimented by a measured, legitimate and informed approach to political discourse.  Inflammatory statements from all sides do little more than erode the precious commodity of probity that we should all hold dear.

Gabe King

Gabe King is a postgraduate student at the University of Queensland in Australia.  His main research focus centers upon the interplay between biotechnology and international security.

Bird-flu, Smallpox, Chicken Soup Research- The Coming Storm

Every so often research or technology finds its way into the headlines as a source of potential misuse concern.  This week it is ‘gain of function’ research into the H7N9 strain of bird-flu. This research will involve experiments which may result in the development of strains which are more lethal, infectious  and more prone to change than strains found in nature. This follows the announcement by a group of scientists of their intentions in a letter to two leading scientific journals.

This announcement comes in the wake of a previous outcry in relation to H5N1 research. This was conducted by some of the researchers now working on H7N9. The H5N1 fiasco focused on the question of whether research which demonstrated how to make the H5N1 virus transmissible through the air should be published.  In the case of the H5N1, political panic set in, which sparked some unusual international events and discussions, as well as a year-long voluntary hiatus on similar research. The ultimate outcome was that the US government decided to tighten up  institutional level review and risk assessment  of  research on certain pathogens.  An approach which neglected broader underlying concerns, and revealed absence of institutional capacity to deal with these issues at both national and international level in a scientific and legitimate way.

Who's afraid of a chicken? A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of a strain of Influenza. (Photo CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin)

Who’s afraid of a chicken? A transmission electron micrograph (TEM) image of a strain of Influenza. (Photo CDC/ Dr. Erskine. L. Palmer; Dr. M. L. Martin)

Before  bird-flu other S&T to attract press attention included viral-synthesis research and mouse-pox research. Added to this concerns about mail-order viral components also appeared in the press in the mid 2000’s. These latter concerns have been dealt with primarily through voluntary industry screening practices. The most recent non-biological technology to be discussed in terms of its  misuse potential is 3D printing technology – which has raised the concern for some that the technology will allow people to print plastic firearms.

Such heightened public concerns about specific experiments and technology appear bizarre,  in the context of the claim that all science and technology can be misused. Indeed  as a  biochemist I once interviewed pointed out, even work on the immune benefits of chicken soup, could breed findings into how to overcome the immune system of a human being.   Added to this there is research occurring internationally that involves doing lots of worrying things to nasty pathogens. This includes research into pox-viruses. Smallpox, the most tightly regulated pathogen internationally, is a classic bio-weapon agent.  This eradicated pathogen only exists in two high-security laboratories – one in Russia, and one in the US.

Be that as it may, it is only  a handful of experiments which have been subject to the public and policy circus that is high-level dual-use review. The organizers of such interventions have faced the daunting task of providing expert and timely advice. Following two reviews conducted by US dual-use advisory body  one dissenting  (now former) member described the political situation as involving ‘uncharted scientific and public policy waters‘ and suggested that the reviews were based on inadequate technical information.

ASMBiodefense 2012 - H5N1 Research Discussion(Photo by Chris Condayan)

ASMBiodefense 2012 – H5N1 Research Discussion (Photo by Chris Condayan)

As a colleague at the University of Bradford has pointed out– it appears paradoxical that dual-use issues are supposedly everywhere, but that such political dilemmas are incredibly rare. Over my time conducting my PhD on dual-use policy,  I have heard several catch-all explanations for why  a  life science research team, operating quietly in their lab one week – can suddenly find themselves being called to justify their research in terms of benefits and risks in a public forum. Or alternatively, why certain foundational technologies such as gene-synthesis technologies have received the lion’s share of dual-use concern within the biotech sector in recent years – sparking  the development of Federal guidelines and industry oversight initiatives.

A common one is the ‘terror/hype’ explanation the idea that certain experiments, presented in a certain way at the right time are just downright scary.  The terror/hype explanation suggests that such  public furor is dependent on the heady mix of technology hype and accessible misuse scenarios which capture the imagination. Occasionally aspects of the press undoubtedly aid this, through the over-simplification of research, or the focus on extreme worst case scenarios. Although, in my own experience, the polarization between the scientific and security communities, has  also sometimes resulted in equally as unhelpful presentations of the issue. Another explanation – and one which tends to be preferred by conspiracy theorist types, is that the range of experiments and technologies which have reached press, public and policy maker attention reflect certain political agendas.

It is difficult to make sense of  the politics which  surrounds dual-use issues relying on  either of these approaches exclusively. An alternative approach is to focus on the  institutional landscape which gives scope, significance and form to dual-use use issues- and allows ‘dual-use’ dilemmas to bubble to the surface.  Below  are some of the underlying reasons why dual-use issues get some policy shapers and aspects of the public flustered.

  • Public lack of faith in laboratory bio-safety/ bio-security.
  • The perceived  threat of rogue researchers working with the most dangerous pathogens within public health and biodefense research institutions. Such concerns occur in the wake of the allegations that a US biodefense researcher was behind the 2001 Anthrax attacks in the US.
  • Concerns about state bio-defense programs within the international community.  For example,  the US biodefense program has been singled out as a cause for dual-use concern by some states and commentators. It has been suggested that such programs have the potential to make other states feel  less secure.
  • Concerns about de-skilling and diffusion dynamics  within biotechnology. These trends make it harder for states to monitor and regulate against misuse by criminals and terrorists.
  • Low levels of awareness among scientists about: misuse issues, the history of biowarfare as well as the international CBW regime.
  • The emergence of dual-use issues as a  public anxiety in relation to  new bio-technologies

A key question, is how scientists and policy shapers can work together to cut through rhetoric and crossed purposes as part of the process of building scientifically sound policy directed at better understanding and responding to dual-use issues. It seems likely however that the  legacy of the coming H7H9  storm will not be clear-cut solutions. We can only hope for some positive incremental developments in our institutional capacity to convincingly address this issue area. One such development is the  announcement that the US Department of Health and Human Services ( a key, but not the only funder of H7N9 research internationally) will provide an extra layer of review for research which is:

reasonably  anticipated to generate H7N9 viruses with increased transmissibility between mammals by respiratory droplets’

The Dept. HHS review will be an interesting test case for such an approach in the wake of the H5N1 discussions last  year. However, it already appears, that while such research will inevitably take place, it will do so in the context of some heated discussion.  It seems likely however that this approach will bring fresh vigor to calls for improved  governance. This will lead to discussion of:

  • the need for review of such research internationally;
  • whether changing the virus in other ways is also a cause for concern;
  • whether any scientific research of this type should be impermissible;
  • whether  certain ‘less risky’ research approaches should be favoured;
  • the best model for reviewing such research of concern;
  • the nature of stipulations which should be attached to research during the review process;
  • implications of this recent case for other fields of potential concern.

Brett Edwards is based at the University of Bath and is working on a ESRC and DSTL project  examining S&T review within the CWC and BWC. He is also working on his PhD which  examines the governance of dual-use aspects of synthetic biology, in the US and the UK.  Brett has also worked  as a research officer on a Foreign and Commonwealth Office funded project on S&T review within the  BWC. Recently, he also completed a research fellowship  at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology.  Brett has a dual undergraduate background in Biology and Politics, and holds an MA in Biotechnological Law and Ethics.

Developing Countries and the Dual-Use Debate – Why the Fuss?

Dr Louise Bezuidenhout who completed her PhD on dual-use ethics in Africa discusses the significance of dual-use issues in an international context.   Louise outlines her perspectives on exportation of western  dual-use concerns, and the way in which these concerns are understood and responded to by scientists on the ground.

Image: Seguridadbiologica.blogspot.com

Image: Seguridadbiologica.blogspot.com

Developing Countries and the Dual-Use Debate – Why the Fuss?

Dual-use issues relate to the risk that benignly intended scientific research may be utilised in the development of illegal weapons. Most current dual-use discussions tend to focus on scientific research that is conducted in a small number of Western nations such as the USA, UK and Australia.  The majority of regulatory initiatives – including the “web of prevention” model – were spearheaded in these countries, and they have been highly influential in the development of initiatives to counter the dual-use potential of the life sciences.  Furthermore, these countries – particularly the USA – have taken the lead in developing discourse on dual-use ethics and dual-use education for scientists.

In recent years, however, the dual-use debate is increasingly becoming more international as many other countries start considering the dual-use aspects of the life sciences.  Notably, there has been marked movement in many European countries as well as in the Far East.  Nonetheless, despite the efforts of dedicated individuals, there remains very little representation from most developing countries in this growing international dual-use debate.  While, of course, the percentage of worldwide research from these countries pales in comparison to that generated in the West, the amount of research and development coming from these regions has grown and looks set to continue doing so.  In particular, the BRICS countries represented by Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have all recently made massive strides in establishing life science research and development within their borders.

Raising Dual-Use Awareness and Regulating Science in these Regions

In addition to the virtual absence of these developing countries in international dual-use debates, the topic of dual-use remains a moot point in many developing countries’ science regulation policies.   Combined with highly variable degrees of nationally regulated biosafety and biosecurity oversight, formalized biorisk regulation and dual-use education and awareness is low within these countries.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that scientists in these countries do not interact with dual-use regulation.  Indeed, in many of these countries foreign funding and collaborations remain the only possibility for generating research funds in the absence of dedicated governmental funding.  Thus, through funding requirements, collaboration memoranda of understanding, and publication agreements, as well as foreign legislation on exports and imports, scientists in developing countries are regularly coming into contact with concerns relating to dual-use.

But Does it Work?

Despite assumptions that raising dual-use awareness through these channels increases a “culture of awareness and a shared sense of responsibility” amongst these developing country scientists, it seems important to pause and ask: does it actually work?  Are the dual-use concerns communicated through regulatory and legislative channels actually translating into dual-use concern within these scientific communities, or are they in fact (in the absence of adequate education and discussion) alienating scientists from this debate?

Why the Fuss?

Recent empirical work conducted with scientists in a range of African laboratories suggested that increasing dual-use requirements and regulation in their current form were in fact alienating scientists from the debate.  Interviews and focus groups with scientists in these countries strongly suggested that the imposition of foreign regulations and requirements without corresponding ethical discussion led to scientists failing to see value with the content of the dual-use concept.

What Can Be Done?

Although it may be easy to pigeonhole these scientists as “non-progressive” or “non-Western”, further investigation showed the situation to be much more complicated than that.  Two issues in particular were highlighted.  Firstly, the imposition of ethical priorities (such as counteracting bioterrorism) through regulations was often viewed by scientists as “ethical imperialism”.  It was only through sustained discussions about the concept of dual-use and how the misuse of data was understood within a specific research context that this initial rejection could be overcome.

Secondly, it became apparent that regulations often made implicit assumptions about research environments, reflecting a highly Westernized interpretation of scientific research.  In many cases, scientists in developing countries felt alienated from discussions due to the impossibility of correctly applying regulations to their daily research.  Although many commentators have been quick to jump in and say that research should not be done in “insufficient environments”, such statements are binary and uninformed.  Much of the research conducted in developing countries occurs in eminently adequate environments that are, however, less advanced than those in the West.  Without the dedicated core funding to modernize these facilities, it is unlikely that some regulations will be met according to Western standards – but this does not make the research conducted in these institutions unethical.  Such judgments have been observed to increase ethical distress amongst scientists, often resulting in the rejection of dual-use discussions.

To Summarize

Current debates on dual-use need to develop a greater sensitivity for developing countries.  In particular, emerging dual-use ethics and regulations need to be aware of certain issues relating to developing country scientists.

  • Ethical discussions and regulations often reflect an inherent Western perspective with Western priorities.  This may alienate developing country scientists from debates without proper discussion of these issues.
  • Imposing “globally applicable” regulations on research environments that differ markedly from the Western ideal will incorrectly foster perceptions of unethical research being conducted in these facilities and cause considerable distress amongst developing world scientists.

Dr Louise Bezuidenhout is currently a Research Fellow at the University of  Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her main research interest is  the development of ethical discourse – including dual-use issues – amongst  scientists in developing countries.