Dual Use Biotechnology Research: The Case for Protective Oversight

Publication Date: 
October 2007

in Brian Rappert and Caitriona McLeish, eds., A Web of Prevention: Biological Weapons, Life Sciences and the Governance of Research, Earthscan, London

The Controlling Dangerous Pathogens Project
Document Type: 
Articles and Op-Eds

During recent years, there has been growing concern in the US and in other countries about dual use research.1 Much of this has focused on the risk that advances in biotechnology could lead, either inadvertently or deliberately, to the creation of new pathogens more destructive than those that currently exist.This is not a future threat. Research with potentially destructive consequences is already being carried out in university, private sector, and government laboratories around the world. Perhaps the most famous example of such research, and the one that first alerted some scientists and policy-makers to the potential risks from biotechnology research, was the mousepox experiment in Australia. In this work, published in February 2001, researchers trying to develop a means of controlling rodent populations inserted an interleukin-4 gene into the mousepox virus and in so doing created a pathogen that was lethal even to some mice that had been vaccinated against the disease (Jackson et al, 2001). US scientist Mark Buller later built upon this work, producing a mousepox virus so lethal that it killed all of the mice that had been infected, even those that had been both vaccinated and treated with antiviral drugs (MacKenzie, 2003). These projects and others that followed have led to concerns that the introduction of IL-4 into other orthopox viruses (such as smallpox) could have similarly lethal effects.