Open Journal of Applied Sciences, 2012, 2, 123-127
doi:10.4236/ojapps.2012.23017 Published Online September 2012 (http :/ /
Dual Use and Biosecurity: The Case of the Avian Flu H5N1*
Pieter J. D. Drenth1,2
1Department of Psychology, VU University Amsterdam, Amsterdam, The Netherlands
2Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, Amster dam, The Netherlands
Received June 25, 2012; revised July 24, 2012; accepted August 1, 2012
The classical dual use problem—the potential for harmful as well as beneficial application of scientific findings—has
become more immediate in biotechnology than in most other fields of science. Terrorist misuse of the information on
the development of pathogenic organisms can lead to catastrophic outcomes. Therefore, particular in biosciences re-
searchers are faced with the dilemma to find a proper balance between the right to know and the dangers of knowing. In
this paper this dilemma is illustrated by the research on th e influenza A virus subtype H5N1, commonly known as “b ird
flu”. The pros and cons of the full publication on the development of a dangerous airborne type are discussed.
Keywords: Dual Use; Biosecurity; Biosafety; Bird Flu
1. Introduction
The dual use problem—the potential for harmful as well
as beneficial applications of ideas, findings, discoveries,
tools and instruments—has been with us since the early
days of evolution. A stick could be used to rake bananas
beyond reach or to beat a congener, iron could be melted
to forge ploughshares or swords.
This applies to science as well. Scientific knowledge
can also be used for the better or for the worse. Nuclear
fission can be utilised for the production of clean energy
or for the development of an atomic bomb. The analysis
of pain can be applied for the development of effective
sedatives or of torturing interrogation means. Audiomet-
ric research can result in improved communication for
people hard of hearing or in criminal telephone tapping.
The scientific world has always been reluctant to ac-
cept constraints on research and to admit “no go” deci-
sions for certain subjects or fields of investigation. In the
first place because in principle nearly all results of scien-
tific research are open for wilful abuse. Prohibition of
scientific research for the fact that its results could be
abused or irresponsibly applied would, therefore, mean
the end of almost all research. Secondly, because unde-
sirable or dangerous consequences of research are not
always easy to chart, especially in fundamental or inno-
vative research with its creativity and serendipity. In the
third place because the arguments “undesirable” and
“dangerous” have too often been led to repression by
dictators, governments, political authorities, economic spon-
sors or popular action movements (environment, feminism,
anti-discrimination). One only has to remember Galileo,
Spinoza, More or in modern times Lysenko and Sacharov
to realize how innovative scientists and scholars can be
victimised if their results do not find favour with the rulers
in power.
It should be realised that, if there is a question of con-
straints on science, it is the scientific world itself that
should impose such restrictions. Legislation and bureau-
cratic regulations would be largely ineffective. Of course,
there are cases for which “no go” decisions would be
considered incontestable by all scientists and scholars.
For instance, cases in which unacceptable harm or dam-
age is inflicted upon the object of research (human be-
ings, animals, nature, cultural products), or cases in
which the nature or consequences of the research would
be in conflict with basic human values (human rights,
human dignity, equality, and non-discrimination (for a
more extensive discussion see Drenth, [1]). But, as said,
there is a strong disinclination to interdict research be-
cause of its potential misuse, and to go beyond the fos-
tering of scientists’ responsibility through training and
awareness programmes, and through the development of
codes and professional standards.
2. Biosecurity
Recently, however, this state of affairs underwent a change.
Incited by two deterrent incidents, the attack with nerve
gas in a Japanese metro in the mid 90’s, and the distribu-
tion of anthrax letters in the USA shortly after the 9 - 11
*This paper is based on a presentation at the General Meeting of the
International Human Rights Network of Academies and Scholarly
Societies in Taipei, Taiwan, on May 23-25 , 2012.
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJAppS
raid, one realised that abuse of biological research could
assume enormous proportions.
What types of potential misuse can be distinguished?
The US National Research Council [2,3] mentions seven
classes of experiments that raise concerns about their
potential for misuse, including those that would:
Demonstrate how to render a human or animal vac-
cine ineffective;
Provide pathogens with resistance to therapeutically
useful antibio tics or antiviral agents;
Enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a non-
pathogen virulent ;
Increase transmissibility of a pathogen;
Alter the host range of a pathogen;
Enable the evasion of diagn osis or detection;
Enable the weaponisation of a biological agent or
Already in 1972 a “Biological and Toxin Weapons Con-
vention” had been signed by a great number of states (by
the year 2000 some 144 states plus 18 signatory states).
Article 1 of the BWC reads: “Each state party to this
Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to
develop, produce, stockpile or otherw ise acquire or retain
microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever
their origin or method of production, of types and in
quantities that have no justification for prophylactic,
protective or other peaceful purposes”. But terrorists
make light of such conventions and the threat of massive
harm may not be at all unrealistic. And it may be a mis-
take to think of terrorists as just loners working in their
garage wit h bombs and kalashni kovs.
On 7 November 2007 the international panel IAP (a
global network of science academies [4]) issued a state-
ment on biosecurity, representing fundamental biosecu-
rity issues that should be taken into account when for-
mulating codes of conduct. These include:
Awareness: Scientists should always bear in mind the
potential (harmful) consequences of their research,
and refuse to undertake r e search that has only harmful
consequences for humankind;
Safety and security: Good, safe and secure laboratory
Education and information on national and interna-
tional laws and regulations, as well as policies and
principles aimed at preventing misuse of biological
Accountability: Scientists aware of violations of the
BWC should raise concerns with appropriate people,
authorities and ag encies;
Oversight: Scientists with responsibility for oversight
of research or evaluation of projects should adhere to
these principles.
This statement was supported by 67 national Acad-
emies of Sciences plus TWAS (the Academy of Sciences
for the Developing World). As can be seen, this state-
ment strongly emphasises the responsibility of the scien-
tists themselves.
The Royal Netherlands’ Academy of Arts and Sci-
ences (KNAW), that has been an active contributo r to the
IAP Statement, produced a “Code of Conduct for Biose-
curity” also in 2007 [5]. In addition to issues mentioned
above this code also includes rules of conduct on:
Research and Publication policy: Be aware of and
screen for dual-use aspects during the execution of
research, and reduce the risk of potential misuse of
published results;
Internal and external communication: Maintain ap-
propriate security for e-mails, post, telephone calls
and data storage concerning information about poten-
tial dual-use research or materials;
Accessibility: Screening with attention to biosecurity
aspects of staff and visitors;
Shipment and transport: Screening on biosecurity
aspects of transporters and recipients of potential dual-
use materials.
It may be good to point out the difference between
biosafety and biosecurity. The former concept deals with
the danger that a dangerous virus or pathogen escapes the
laboratory or repository or that someone at the laboratory
may have an accident, and the precautionary measures
that researchers have to take to avoid this risk. The latter
concept refers to the risk of wilful abuse of research in
the hands of a nefarious terrorist, and is more specifically
the subject of this paper.
A pressing question, then, is how to regulate the bio-
logical research in view of this threat of malignant use.
Many scientists, including the majority of respondents in
a survey of AAAS and the US National Research Council
[6], hold the view that scientists themselves should
shoulder this responsibility. They favour self-governance,
through creating awareness and responsibility, through
enlighten ed leadership (Franz [7]), by cultivating a moral
agency of individual scientists or groups of scientists
(Davis [8]), by enunciating norms and codes (Epstein
[9]), through educating junior scientists about dual use
(Sta.Ana, Frankel and Berger [10]), and through over-
sight mechanisms for research proposals and public-
cations in which peer reviewers try to answer the ques-
tion whether the scientific value of the (to be) gained
knowledge outweighs the risks of malignant abuse. On
the other hand it is also defended that the threat of misuse
does not stem primarily from within the scientific com-
munity, but from terrorists who have gained access to the
scientific knowledge and do not share the scientists’
moral imperative. It is then concluded that a national
government should assume the responsibility and should
take action through legislation and control. The US has
taken a step in the latter direction by founding a National
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJAppS
P. J. D. DRENTH 125
Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), an
independent committee that advises the US Department
of Health and Human Services and other federal agencies
on (the publication of) biological research that may en-
danger biosecurity. Although many of the recommenda-
tions of the NSABB tend to stress the importance of
self-governance and own responsibility of scientists, it
opens the opportunity for a governmental regulation or
It will be clear that, next to the question whether such
a governmental control could ever be feasible and effec-
tive (and Epstein [9]) shows with good arguments that it
is not), we are also confronted with the more fundamen-
tal questions of freedom of research and inquiry, freedom
of speech and publication, and the balance between the
right to know and the dangers of knowing. Many scien-
tists feel that even well intended efforts to restrict the
freedom to share and to publish their research findings
may have serious consequences, both in terms of lost
knowledge and wrong app lication of existing kno wledge.
A good deal of this discussion can be illustrated on the
basis of a recent case at the Medical Faculty of the
Erasmus university in Rotterdam, where Ron Fouchier
and his colleagues modified the avian flu H5N1 to be
transmissible via aerosols or respiratory droplets, and
submitted a publication on this experiment to Science.
We will discuss some details of this case in the remain-
der of this paper1.
3. The H5N1 Avian Flu Case
3.1. The Facts
For quite some time a group of virologists at the De-
partment of Virology, Erasmus Medical Center in Rot-
terdam, led by Ron Fouchier, has researched the Influ-
enza A virus subtype H5N1, more commonly known as
“bird flu”. Since its first detection in 1997 this highly
pathogenic virus h as killed hundreds of millions of b irds,
but so far the virus caused only 577 (laboratory con-
firmed) cases of human infections, and only in people
who had been in close contact with infected poultry.
Sustained human-to-human transmission has not been
reported (Fouchier, Herfst & Osterhaus [11]). It is, how-
ever, a fairly lethal virus in people, having killed, ac-
cording to some estimates, around 60% of those 577 in-
fected individuals. And if this virus were to mutate to an
airborne type, which could be transmitted through
coughs and sneezes or via aerosols, a devastating pan-
demic must be expected.
Yet this is what Ron Fouchier and his assistant Sander
Herfst discovered. Through five mutations they modified
the virus into an airborne, and thus extremely contagious,
version. The research was done in ferrets, which catch flu
somewhat similar to the way humans do, and which are
considered the best models for such a test. The virology
group at the Erasmus University had asked and received
permission as well as funding to do this cutting-edge
research. They have followed carefully the rules of con-
duct prescribed in the IAP Statement and the KNAW
Code of Conduct for Biosecurity. Fouchier described his
work and data at the influenza conference organised by
the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza
(ESWI) in Malta in September 2011, and submitted a
manuscript with the full information for publication in
Science. The Science editors first conducted their own
biosecurity review (in agreement with the IAP statement
and the Dutch Code of Conduct for Biosecurity), and
sent it also to the NSABB for advice. The NSABB rec-
ommended to the US government that the conclusions of
the manuscript could be published, but without experi-
mental details and mutation data that would enable rep-
lication of the experiments. NSABB further recognised
that detailed information about the results should be
shared under confidentiality with parties that “need to
know” (Fouch ier, Herfst & Osterhaus, [11, p.2]).
In the meantime it has become a notorious case. It was
subject of an often heated debate in the scientific press,
but also in the public media, especially after the publica-
tion of an article “Debate persists on deadly flu made
airborne” in the Science section of the New York Times
on December 26, 2011, and the large number of com-
ments that it provoked. Critics charge Fouchier and his
group with the accusation that he should not have created
the virus in the first place, and insist that this research
should not be publish ed .
The authors do not agree with the NSABB recom-
mendations, but respect nevertheless their advice. They
were willing to submit an article version that does not
include the methodological and other details that could
enable replication of th e experiments by criminals, and to
try to find a solution for disseminating key information to
those who need to know. In a statement in Nature and
Science by the end of January 2012 all 39 influenza re-
searchers who work at virology laboratories where such
experiments could be carried out endorsed a 2 months
moratorium on studies that make the avian influenza
strain H5N1 more transmissible between mammals, in
order to make time for an international debate on its bio-
security consequences.
1A comparable study resulting in a similar contagious mutant of the
avian flu has been carried out by Yoshihiro Kawaoka at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison. His paper was sent for publication to Nature,
and was subjected to a similar treatment as Fouchier’s paper. As said,
we will focus on the latter.
3.2. The Debate
The arguments contra are clear: The risk of terrorist
misuse of the information is considered bigger than the
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJAppS
negative effects of strangling such research through re-
strictive measures and regulations. “Some cases are
worth an exception to the principle of openness” said
Thomas Inglesby, the director of the Centre for Biosecu-
rity at the University of Pittsburgh in an interview for
Mailonline (18-11-2011). Epstein (2012) reasoned that
the argument that this kind of advanced basic research
cannot be understood or applied by terrorists may be an
illusion. “Today’s cutting-edge research becomes to-
morrow craft skill, which becomes the day after’s com-
modity”, as he stated. The conclusion is that the risks
outweigh the benefits, and that, therefore, this research
should not be done, and certainly not be published.
At the same time a number of good arguments pro
have been brought to the fore.
In the first place, there is the importance of knowing
and sharing knowledge with other scientists. Openness
and sharing knowledge is the cornerstone of scientific
development. And this scientific development cannot be
stopped. Fouchier, Herfst and Osterhaus [11] point out
that they only used information and methods that are
available freely from the scientific literature, and that
virologists could perform similar experiments even if
their method is not published.
The NSABB recommendation to publish the results,
but without the experimental details and the mutation
data that would allow replication of the experiments,
does not seem an effective and feasible solution. Science
can only develop through critical analysis and replication
by colleague scientists, an d they need full details for th at.
NSABB realised this also, and recommended, as said,
that detailed information should be shared confidentially
with to be approved experts that need to know. However,
aside from the near impossibility to keep such a publica-
tion secret very difficult questions arise immediately:
Who decides about the approval? Using which criteria?
Which mechanism will be used to share the info rmation?
In addition, within the legal rules of the World Health
Organisation (WHO) it is very difficult to refuse infor-
mation on a dangerous and contagious virus to any state
that requests such information.
Moreover, in this case there is the important implica-
tion for public health . What can be done in a lab can also
spontaneously happen in nature, and it is good to know
which mutations to watch for in case of an outbreak, and
to prepare for a timely development of vaccinations and
medication. As Fouchier, Herfst and Osterhaus [11] state
“nature itself should be considered the prime bioterrorist”.
Without knowledge of the possibility of this vicious
variant confiden ce in the traditional H5N1 strategy (only
birds and no airborne contagion) would be seriously fal-
lacious. In addition, lots of further questions need to be
researched: How does this virus spread between people?
How important is the aerogene spread? How stable is the
mutation? Can we generalise from ferret to human? The
view of the virologist Palese [12] is almost the opposite
of the NSABB advice: “The more danger a pathogen
poses, the more importan t it is to study it and to share the
results with the scientific community. Slowing down the
scientific enterprise will not protect the public, it only
makes us more vulnerable.”
Finally, pre-screening and censorship has a rather
harmful side-effect: Who would enter a research field
and carry out complex and time consuming research
without a guarantee that the significant results can be
published? Essentially, such restrictive measures would
terminate frontier research in this field of great impor-
3.3. Latest Developments
On 16-17 February 2012 the WHO organised an expert
meeting with a strong representation of the influenza
field, in which the importance of this kind of research
was unanimously underscored. A further consensus was
reached on the view that a shortened re-edited version of
the manuscript has no value, that sharing the details of
the study with a restricted, selected number of colleagues
is not practicable, and that th e benefits of the research for
science and public health are greater than the possible
risks of publicati on .
Further, neither the US government nor the WHO has
found practicable ways to share details of this research
confidentially only with selected colleagues. After the
Geneva WHO conference and the ardent discussions in
the professional and public press the US government
requested a second opinion of the NSABB. Fouchier and
Kawaoka were asked to defend their research and to
formulate their objections against the first advice. Given
their arguments and the conclusions of the Geneva con-
ference NASBB changed its opinion and decided now to
advise positively on the publication of the full manu-
The US government accepted this NASBB advice.
The Dutch government did not agree, however, and
insisted on its right to exercise export control over this
potentially dangerous research, which is considered ap-
plied research. (The government has no right to wield
power over basic research). It forced Fouchier and his
group to ask permission for export, which they did under
protest. After careful weighing of the (scientific and pu b-
lic health) interests and the risks the government as yet
granted the export and the research was published.
4. Conclusions
The contentious issue discussed in this paper is a good
illustration of the dilemmas that dual research raises.
Taking extreme positions in such a dilemma should be
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJAppS
Copyright © 2012 SciRes. OJAppS
denounced. Both the extreme view of zero tolerance with
respect to the risks of research on dangerous viruses as
well as the extreme view that entirely dismisses these
risks, stressing the scientific progression and public
health benefits, have to be avoided. Personally I am in-
clined, given the convincing arguments pro, as discussed
above, to pronounce against the prohibition of this type
of research and its full publication, provided the re-
searchers take all necessary Biosafety measures, and
comply fully with the Code of Conduct for Biosecurity.
However, which stand one takes on the continuum be-
tween the two extreme positions remains a personal
choice, but should—contrary to the often indignant re-
actions in the public media—always be based on full and
reliable information, and result from a careful and re-
sponsible weighing of the risks and benefits.
The H5N1 case is an instru ctive illustration of the dual
use dilemmas in present day’s developments in bio-
technology. Given the uncertainties and lack of clarity
with respect to the distribution of responsibilities be-
tween the scientific world and governments in many
parts of the world further and better regulations are
needed. In my opinion Academies of Sciences, and In-
ternational Associations of Academies of Sciences (such
as ALLEA and IAP) are the right institutes to take up this
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[2] National Research Council, “Biotechnology Research in
an Age of Terrorism,” NA Press, Washington DC, 2004.
[3] National Research Council, “Understanding Biosecurity;
Protecting against the Misuse of Science in Today’s
World,” NA Press, Washington DC, 2010.
[4] Inter Academy Panel, “IAP Statement on Biosecurity,”
Third World Academy of Sciences, Trieste, 2005.
[5] Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wesenschappen,
“A Code of Conduct for Biosecurity,” Amsterdam, 2007.
[6] National Research Council, “Understanding Biosecurity;
Protecting against the Misuse of Science in Today’s
World,” Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington,
[7] D. R. Franz, “The Role of Leadership and Culture within
the Laboratory,” In: T. Mayer and N. Steneck, Eds., Pro-
moting Research Integrity in a Gl obal Environment, World
Science Publishing Co., Singapore, 2010, pp. 365-368.
[8] F. D. Davis, “Dual-Use Research, Codes of Conduct, and
the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity,” In:
T. Mayer and N. Steneck, Eds., Promoting Research
Integrity in a Global Environment, World Science Pub-
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[9] G. L. Epstein, “Governance Options for Dual Use Re-
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ence Publishing Co., Singapore, 2012, pp. 391-364.
[10] J. L. S. Ana, M. S. Frankel and K. M. Berger, “Educating
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2009, p. 1193. doi:10.1126/science.1176127
[11] R. A. M. Fouchier, S. Herfst, and Osterhaus, “Restricted
Data on Influenza H5N1 Virus Transmission,” Science
Express, Vol. 335, No. 6069, 2012, pp. 662-663.
[12] P. Palese, “Don’t Censor Life-Saving Science,” Nature,
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