U.S. Government Must Be Prepared To Handle Dual Use Research Of Concern

“This week, a Senate panel is investigating biological security in the wake of” controversial “potentially dangerous research” on H5N1 avian influenza, “with good reason,” Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wisc.) writes in a Washington Times opinion piece. He says “the U.S. government should not have been caught by surprise” by the two research papers describing how genetic mutations to the virus could make it transmissible between ferrets, because the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) “was created in 2004 and charged with the specific responsibility of reviewing this type of research and offering guidance to all federal agencies that conduct biological research.” Sensenbrenner says the NSABB’s initial recommendation against publishing the studies and its subsequent reversal of that decision has left him with “suspicions that the U.S. government is woefully unprepared for dealing with dual use research of concern — research that, while conducted for a legitimate scientific purpose, could be dangerous if misused.”

Sensenbrenner discusses a letter (.pdf) he sent to White House science adviser John Holdren regarding the situation and Holdren’s response, in which he described “a new policy that asked federal agencies to review research they conduct or fund that involves specific pathogens that ‘pose the greatest risk of deliberate misuse with most significant potential for mass casualties.'” He concludes, “I am investigating further the actions of NSABB and will watch closely to see how the administration implements the new policy. The challenge of how to deal with the publication and dissemination of potentially dangerous research is not going away, and it is long past time for the administration to prepare the U.S. government to handle potentially dangerous research” (4/24).