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An international panel discussed what the UK can learn from the US and Europe about biosecurity, and the risks and benefits of dual-use research, which has the potential to be used to cause harm, at the Society of Biology yesterday evening.

Opening the latest debate in the Policy Lates series, Professor Mike Imperiale (University of Michigan), recalled two infamous papers from 2012, in which US and Netherlands researchers detailed modification of the H5N1 avian influenza virus to allow it to be transmitted between mammals. This is an example of a gain-of-function (GOF) experiment. Mike described recent events in this field as the ‘perfect storm’: increases in GOF research publications, the discovery of a new botulinum toxin that cannot be neutralised, and two laboratory incidents. This has led to the US government pausing the funding of GOF research on influenza, SARS, and MERS in order to carry out an in-depth risk benefit analysis.

Dr Koos van der Bruggen (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), called for ‘no more bureaucracy, more clarity’. The Academy recommends taking into account not only the biological aspects but also the political and society aspects of GOF research.

Professor Simon Wain-Hobson (Institut Pasteur), highlighted the real danger of a pandemic, ‘you are making new viruses and increasing the danger level from the human point of view’. If a laboratory made a virus that did get out and cause human death, Wain-Hobson predicts that there would be huge insurance claims, ‘liability lawyers would demolish Harvard’.

Lastly, Professor Kathryn Nixdorff, Darmstadt University of Technology, said ‘the primary responsibility for work in the life sciences rests with the researchers’, summarising the conclusions of a recent report from the German Ethics Council. She claimed that in order for scientists to perform a comprehensive risk benefit assessment of their work they must be educated about dual-use biosecurity issues, and therefore raising awareness is of the utmost importance.

The panel agreed that in order not to hamper microbiology research, we shouldn’t lose sight of the benefits of dual-use research, or introduce a blanket ban.

Victoria Charlton (Science and Technology Select Committee) asked ‘what should the UK government do about dual-use research?’

From the audience, David Carr (Wellcome Trust), presented the (un-finalised) dual-use research of concern (DURC) joint statement from the BBSRC, MRC, and the Wellcome Trust. The main points include the need to take risks seriously but to also consider the benefits, the fundamental belief in open communication and dissemination of results, and confidence in the scientific community being proactive about self-governance.

Leoni Kurt (Defence Select Committee) asked what the defence policy should be in the UK. ‘Discuss – and see what the majority say’ was the response from panellist, Wain-Hobson, who said in this new territory, a consensus is needed. Imperiale concluded that ‘a vigorous research enterprise is probably our best defence against some of these pathogens’.

A full summary of this event will be included in the first issue of The Biologist of 2015.