Global Governance of 'Contentious' Science: The Case of the World Health Organization's Oversight of Smallpox Virus Research

Author data: 
Jonathan Tucker and Stacy Okutani
Publication Date: 
December 2004
Description: 
Working Paper Prepared for the WMD Commission
Project: 
The Controlling Dangerous Pathogens Project
File Name: 
Document Type: 
Working Papers

A major challenge facing efforts to prevent the spread of biological weapons to "rogue" states and terrorist organizations is the dual-use nature of biotechnology: the fact that the same technical know-how and equipment involved in the peaceful development and production of vaccines and other commercial products can be diverted into offensive applications. This "dual-use dilemma" carries over into basic research in the life sciences.  When microbiologists publish research papers that elucidate the process of infection, describe the molecular basis of pathogenesis, or explore the physiological action of toxins, they add to the existing body of knowledge and contribute to the development of medical therapies. Yet countries seeking biological weapons could utilize the same information to devise more deadly infectious agents and methods of delivery. Examples of such dual-use research include the unexpected discovery that inserting the gene for an immune-system protein renders mousepox virus more lethal and vaccine-resistant in mice; the identification of a smallpox protein that contributes to the virulence of the disease in humans; and the synthesis of poliovirus in the test tube.

The most serious threat of misuse of this information does not arise from terrorist organizations, which have limited scientific expertise, but rather from scientists employed by sophisticated, well-funded national BW programs. These individuals keep up with the scientific literature and are capable of exploiting basic research findings to pursue weapons-related developments. It is therefore important to address these biological security concerns in a way that does not cause serious harm to the scientific enterprise.

Stacy Okutani is a Graduate Fellow in the Advanced Methods of Cooperative Security Program.