In the ongoing controversy over the mutant H5N1 avian influenza research (Nature 481, 9–10, 2012), we should be wary of reducing biosecurity measures merely to assigning access rights to sensitive information and materials. A national security body made up of military and law-enforcement officials that puts confidentiality stamps on dual-use research is not in the long-term interest of scientific progress.
Biosecurity in research needs to be integrated into a more comprehensive strategy if it is to be effective and avoid harming public-health interests.
As a member and chair of several ethics-review panels of dual-use research for the European Union, I believe that these research projects, and their clearly foreseeable implications, should have undergone a proper risk–benefit assessment before funding. They could then have been modified to accommodate additional risk-management procedures.
For example, threats to biosecurity could have been minimized by developing diagnostic kits for early detection and surveillance of the new genetic variants, and by testing possible treatment strategies. It seems that none of this was done.
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Rath, J. Mutant flu: assessing biosecurity risks. Nature 482, 470 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/482470b