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Dual-use research: The controversial flu study

Some time ago I discussed an issue in research called "dual-use", a term referring to research whose published data presents a potential security concern. At the time, I discussed the topic because it was the focus of a recent study on the avian flu (H5N1) -- the results of which beared sensitive information.

Two articles on this study have since been published with one available in the June 22nd issue of Science along with commentary addressing security concerns (the other in Nature). So what did this study entail and what were some of the concerns of researchers?

In essence, these papers discuss how the H5N1 virus becomes transmissible between mammals and which mutations in particular are required for the conversion of the conventional Influenza type A (H1N1) virus to the H5N1. Concerns with such research not only includes the possibility of newly found information to be used by the wrong hands, but also the potential for the inadvertent creation of a highly infectious mutant virus that may erupt through such investigations. As a result, H5N1 researchers have imposed an indefinite "moratorium on studies that involve modifying the transmissibility or lethality of H5N1".

These studies shed an important light on the conflicts that arise with new research which ventures into areas that present security risks to humankind. What is perhaps the most challenging aspect of dual-use research is finding the right threshold at which risks become too high. Even when such limits are determined, should all such research data be publicly available? It would seem counter-intuitive to restrict information, but if there is a serious concern for national security it would seem reasonable. But even then, who controls the release of dual-use research? It appears to me, that as growing concern of dual-use research presents itself, it will become evermore necessary to enforce oversight and though this may be in our best interest it will surely result in additional costs and barriers to new research.

I am interested in gaining your perspective below.

Further Information available through AAAS:

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