BSL-4 Lab Worker - Photo Credit –USAMRIID
Perhaps the most memorable line from the movie Contagion came when Laurence Fishburne, as the director of the CDC said, “Someone doesn't have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing that.”
Nevertheless, there has been much debate in recent years over the wisdom of creating new, potentially dangerous, life forms in the laboratory. Projects that, at least in view of some biosecurity experts, could pose a significant danger to the public.
Last year, the United States' Office of Science Policy at the NIH released a 4 page set of guidelines for DURC (Duel Use Research of Concern) projects, and ordered a review of all current life sciences projects.
For those unfamiliar with the lexicon of biomedical research, DURC in this new policy is defined as:
. . . life sciences research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment,
While this new policy does not automatically halt or defund research found to meet the DURC definition, it does require greater agency oversight and an assessment of the risks and benefits of any research, along with the development of appropriate risk and safety measures.
The debate continues, however over the safety, and advisability, of some of these lab experiments.
Today in mBio we’ve a perspective from noted virologist Jeffery K. Taubenberger & epidemiologist and medical historian David M. Morens on how nature continually conducts these types of experiments 24/7, without regard for the rules of mankind.
Regardless of how you feel about this type of research, you’ll want to read:
Viral Pathogenesis and Evolution Section, Laboratory of Infectious Diseasesa
Office of the Director,b National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA
Influenza A viruses (IAV) are significant pathogens able to repeatedly switch hosts to infect multiple avian and mammalian species, including humans. The unpredictability of IAV evolution and interspecies movement creates continual public health challenges, such as the emergence of the 2009 pandemic H1N1 virus from swine, as well as pandemic threats from the ongoing H5N1 and the recent H7N9 epizootics. In the last decade there has been increased concern about the “dual use” nature of microbiology, and a set of guidelines covering “dual use research of concern” includes seven categories of potentially problematic scientific experiments. In this Perspective, we consider how in nature IAV continually undergo “dual use experiments” as a matter of evolution and selection, and we conclude that studying these properties of IAV is critical for mitigating and preventing future epidemics and pandemics.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the journal or of ASM.