Keeping good science from becoming bioterror | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 08.05.2014
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Keeping good science from becoming bioterror

A German advisory board wants the country to clamp down on science that could go viral in the worst way - and hopes the world will follow suit quickly, please.

"Research results obtained in the life sciences can be used not only for the benefit of individuals and society as a whole, but also misused with intent to cause harm," reads a recently-published warning by the German Ethics Council.

The independent government advisory body is meeting in Berlin Thursday (08.05.2014) to publicly request that the German government enact biosecurity legislation in experiments involving microorganisms, toxins and other biological substances that could be harmful to humans.

The announcement comes two years after Dutch scientists created a "superstrain" of the H5N1 avian flu virus which, though less lethal than the original, was far more transmissible between the ferrets it was tested upon - and by implication, would spread more easily amongst humans.

In spite of calls from the United States' National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to refrain from publishing the details of that study, which could theoretically provide a blueprint for terrorists worldwide, scientists at the Erasmus Medical Center published their results in the journal "Science."

'Context-dependent factors'

Workers wearing protective siuts enter chicken farm in Taragi town, Kumamoto Prefecture, on April 13, 2014. (Photo: JIJI PRESS/AFP/Getty Images)

Japan handled an avian flu outbreak in April

Fundamental to the German Ethics Council's arguments is the differentiation between biosafety and biosecurity. The former involves white biohazard suits, chemical showers and airlocks in a laboratory; the latter involves public policy, and typically implies the threat of terrorism - but could just as easily include a curious individual with access to a laboratory.

"It is often difficult to asses the degree of risk involved, as this is dependent not only on the specific characteristics of the biological agents themselves, but on many other context-dependent factors," the proposal reads.

A modified biological agent's risk potential might be rendered moot, for example, by difficulty in handling or storing it. Could the MERS virus, for example - which kills at a rate of 60 percent - be amplified in a garage? And if so, could it be stored there? Would dissemination be easy or difficult? And would it then spread from human-to-human or remain isolated in the individuals contracting it?

Concerns over dual-use research

The Germans Ethics Council would like to jump in front of such "incalculable aspects." Its softer proposals would require biosecurity questions in undergraduate and graduate curricula including extra state-produced learning materials, and would further train scientists involved in such work.

A Petri dish with something being cultured in it

Does the public have a right to know what's in that Petri dish?

Harder-hitting proposals are related to DURC, an acronym for "Dual Use Research of Concern" - the kind of science that can be used for good or evil. While the exact definition of such research is still evolving, it includes experiments that can make humans more susceptible to known biological agents, enhances their consequences, increases their resistance to antimicrobials or antivirals, or increases their transmissibility and infectious potential.

And since the threat posed by such experiments is global, so too is the scope of the proposal: "Germany should advocate a worldwide, uniform, and as far as possible binding definition and classification of DURC under international law."

Those Dutch scientists

Had the Dutch scientists been subject to rules now being proposed by the Ethics Council, they would have had a legal obligation to vet their research first with a (yet-to-be-established) DURC Council.

The Council would have then issued recommendations, sent a DURC officer for further monitoring or given "advice" on publication of results. Or, if the risks were deemed unjustifiable and outweighed the public benefits, it could have simply vetoed the project.

The German Ethics Council insists that it does not want to clamp down on science with its proposal, but rather mitigate risk.

"Both research and abstaining from research can have disadvantageous consequences for humankind," the body says.

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