For years, the government has been trying to reduce the risk that legitimate biological research could be misused to threaten the public's health, but those efforts have serious shortcomings.
That's the conclusion of a report released Thursday by the prestigious National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that examined existing practices and policies on so-called dual-use biological research.
Since the anthrax attacks of 2001, people working in the life sciences have grappled with what to do about the threat that their well-meaning research might inadvertently provide recipes for those who might want to create bioweapons that could be used in terrorist attacks or warfare.
Simply clamping down on public discussion of such work could threaten the many benefits that come from wide dissemination of basic biological and medical research. But some recent research, such as experiments that made an apparently more contagious form of bird flu, has been hugely controversial.
That incident definitely helped spark discussion, says Harold Varmus, co-chairman of the committee and a professor of medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College.
"The other thing that does stimulate these conversations is the arrival of new kinds of technologies. There's no doubt that a couple of things have brought these matters to greater attention, " says Varmus, pointing to advances that let scientists create synthetic organisms and edit genes in unprecedented ways.
The government has tried to mitigate the risks of dual-use research by setting up special committees, issuing new policies for reviewing federally funded research, and putting restrictions on what government-funded scientists can do with certain viruses like influenza. Later this month, for example, a workshop in Chicago will bring together folks from research institutions to talk about best practices and share their experiences.
But the federal government's current policies focus on seven types of experiments with 15 select pathogens and toxins and don't capture the full range of biosecurity concerns that come from the life sciences, the new report says, adding that those policies can also constrain some research that isn't actually worrisome.
What's more, those policies don't apply to researchers working without government funding, and First Amendment protections restrict officials' ability to stop the communication of research results that could be used for bioterrorism, the report says.
The expert committee also found that there's little to no national or international consensus on how to deal with these thorny problems. And no international organization, such as the World Health Organization or the Biological Weapons Convention, has taken this on.
"We are struck by the fact that there's little international attention to this issue, and of course this is a global issue, it's not just a domestic issue," says committee co-chairman Richard Meserve, senior of counsel to the firm Covington & Burling LLP.
Researchers working in the life sciences appear to have little awareness of biosecurity because it isn't taught in any systematic way at colleges and universities, according to the report.
And the editors of journals that publish research findings have no process that lets them seek out government guidance on manuscripts that might raise security concerns.
"One of the things that would promote greater attention to some of these issues would be the kind of unfortunate incident that we would not like to have happen," notes Varmus, who adds, "It's part of our public responsibility as scientists to provide, at least, fora in which such discussions can occur."