Global effort needed to anticipate and prevent potential misuse of advances in life sciences

January 31, 2006

Biomedical advances have made it possible to identify and manipulate features of living organisms in useful ways -- leading to improvements in public health, agriculture, and other areas. The globalization of scientific and technical expertise also means that many scientists and other individuals around the world are generating breakthroughs in the life sciences and related technologies. However, coordinated global efforts are needed to reduce the growing risk that new advances in these areas will be used to make novel biological weapons or misused by careless groups and individuals, says a new report from the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. The report recommends multidisciplinary measures to identify and mitigate such dangers over the next five to 10 years.

"Our increasingly interdependent global society needs a broad array of integrated, decisive actions to successfully anticipate and manage the potential misuse of biomedical research and the technologies it generates," said Stanley M. Lemon, director, Institute for Human Infections and Immunity, University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report. "The opportunities to inflict harm are unparalleled."

As a start, the entire scientific community should broaden its awareness that bioterrorism threats now include, for example, new approaches for manipulating or killing a host organism or for producing synthetic micro-organisms, the report says. "U.S. national biodefense programs currently focus on a relatively small number of specific agents or toxins, but gains in biomedical understanding have raised major concerns about the next generation of biowarfare agents," said committee co-chair David A. Relman, associate professor of medicine and of microbiology and immunology, Stanford University, Stanford, Calif. "We need to expand our thinking about the nature of future biological threats, as well as more fully exploit advances in the life sciences to create a global public health defense that is agile and flexible."

An independent advisory body should be established to analyze and forecast the fast-changing science and technology landscape in partnership with U.S. intelligence officials and government leaders -- helping them to stay abreast of developments in the life sciences that could be used for both peaceful and destructive aims, the report says. Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently formed the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity to advise the government on "dual use" biological research activities, the proposed advisory group would focus exclusively on analyzing science and technology to anticipate future biological threats.

The report adds that the national security and intelligence communities should bring greater scientific and technical expertise to their decision-making and other activities in biosecurity-related areas.

Continuing advancement in the life sciences is essential to thwarting bioterrorism, the report says; vaccine development, for example, depends on cutting-edge biomedical research. The open exchange of scientific data and concepts is the linchpin of these advances, and the results of fundamental research should remain unrestricted except when national security requires classification of the information. U.S. policymakers also should promote international scientific exchange and the training of foreign scientists in the United States. Both measures have contributed to the productivity of America's scientific enterprise.

Promoting a shared sense of responsibility as well as ethical behavior throughout the world's scientific enterprise is important. S&T leaders and practitioners should develop explicit national and international codes of ethics and conduct for life scientists, the committee said. Additionally, decentralized groups of scientists, government leaders, and other authorities are needed around the world to collaboratively monitor the potential misuse of biomedical tools and technologies -- and intervene if necessary.

The committee said that even if fully implemented, its recommendations would not guarantee that biomedical advances would be used solely for peaceful purposes. Therefore, steps should be taken now to strengthen America's public health infrastructure by improving its ability to quickly detect biological agents and recognize disease outbreaks, and respond to emergencies such as bioterrorist attacks or rapidly spreading pandemics. In addition, greater coordination of federal, state, and local public health agencies is sorely needed.
The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science and health policy advice under a congressional charter. The Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering. A committee roster follows.

Copies of GLOBALIZATION, BIOSECURITY, AND THE FUTURE OF THE LIFE SCIENCES will be available this spring from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at HTTP://WWW.NAP.EDU. Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine

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