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Dual-Use Dilemma

June 22, 2012

Whenever I review a manuscript for the American Society for Microbiology journals, a box must be checked as to whether the submitted paper might have dual use. Dual use means, loosely, any technology that might serve both peaceful and military uses. I hope I never check that box by mistake (it happens) because, in recent years, the quickest way to incite a panic is to mention “dual use” in the same breath as biological research. That may be because biology is increasingly perceived to be easy kids stuff, as suggested by last night’s interview. Fortunately, in real life it’s not nearly that simple.

This year’s big dual-use story is of course the ferret flu. Some researchers in the Netherlands, including Ron Fouchier, evolved a strain of avian flu that could be passed between ferrets by airborne transmission.  Why ferrets?  Because ferret nasal passages have cell-surface receptors that resemble those of humans. So ferret noses are seen as a good “model” for human noses.

Of course, papers on flu are a dime a dozen–more like a million bucks a dozen, there’s so much grant money to go around. So to build some buzz for this one, Fouchier hyped it to Science interviewers, calling it “one of the most dangerous viruses you can make.”

Unfortunately he reckoned without the consequences of somebody checking that box, or equivalent, when he submitted his paper. For the first time, the US government actually demanded redaction of key data from the paper–that is, the key mutations that occurred in the influenza virus genome that allowed airborne  transmission. So the scientists frantically backpedalled, insisting that no, this virus wasn’t really that bad; it only killed ferrets when transmitted by a swab (nose-to-nose) as opposed to a sneeze. The sneezed-upon ferrets got lethargic, with ruffled fur, but apparently survived the experience (at least until they all got “sacrificed,” as most lab animals eventually do.)

There followed months of controversy, keeping numerous journalists employed. Finally, in an unusually magnanimous show of generosity, Science not only published the full paper–the journal provided free public access to the paper with several earnest commentaries. Yes, you can read the entire original ferret flu report yourself, including figures showing cute ferret noses. (See Figure 2, Experiment 3.) I wonder how many readers will run off to the pet store.

For most of us everyday biologists, alas, dual use is much harder to discern. In 1943 Arthur Galston completed a PhD thesis on a chemical that made soybeans flower earlier. At higher concentrations, he observed that the chemical caused early defoliation (loss of leaves). This observation was picked up by someone at the Pentagon and led to development of Agent Orange for use in Vietnam. Twenty years later, Galston found himself lobbying to stop the use of the chemical and to study its human toxicology. Who knows what dual use lies unsuspected on our benchtops today?

  1. Barkeron permalink
    June 23, 2012 11:07 am

    Cynics might say everything is potentially of use for the military (new antibiotics for use at the front lines; augmented reality contact lenses that overlay the battleground with tactical data; etc.).

    What’s your stance to the theory that the State Department attempted a power grab by going for the obvious target of a super-mega-killer virus in order to exert more control over the scientific community, so that they could more easily suppress inconvenient research (like, say, in climatology)?

    • June 23, 2012 11:50 am

      Actually, after what Fouchier unwisely told the media, the State Department had little choice but do do something. What if it really was a superbug, like a humanized Monkeypox or fast-spreading Ebola? It’s a real dilemma. In the case of ferret flu, I think they finally figured out that whatever mutations were made in fact will happen just as well in natural communities. And the result was not so dire as they thought. But eventually, inevitably, some reassortment of genes will make the next killer strain.

      Most “pandemic” flus actually kill only a small fraction of the people they infect; but because practically everyone gets infected, a lot of people get killed.

  2. Rick York permalink
    June 23, 2012 3:12 pm

    One need not be cynical at all to believe that almost all research, not just biological, has potential military uses.

    Fouchier’s ineptness reflects some of the naivete that characterizes many research scientists today. It’s not really their fault. But, I’ve seen so many scientists and even engineers who wax poetic about a new discovery. Some of these discoveries appeal so strongly to the public that, unwittingly, they arouse expectations far beyond the possibilities.

    Anyone who makes any kind of public statement needs to recognize the ability of the press to hyperbolize or completely misunderstand the topic. And – as logically follows – the public’s misunderstanding is fed.

  3. SFreader permalink
    June 23, 2012 4:32 pm

    Is there a scoring system for assessing risk of ‘dual purpose research’? A check-box seems inadequate.

    “Deadline’ by Mira Grant – one of this year’s Hugo nominees – uses this scenario very effectively. Basically the science twist in this zombie apocalypse story is that two man-made viruses (cancer and common cold cures) combine into a new virus ‘goes live’ or ‘amplifies’ upon the death of host mammals of greater than x pounds, turning them into zombies. Wonder if any anti-vaccine groups will use this book as fodder to ban vaccinations.

  4. JamesPadraicR permalink
    June 24, 2012 10:20 am

    Here’s a short, non-technical article (for those of us who need) on this from Discover Magazine: Can Stuffing Germs up Ferrets Unleash a Human Pandemic?

    I thought this line was particularly amusing; “The ferret strains created in these experiments are probably closer to a human vaccine than a doomsday weapon.”

    • June 24, 2012 12:02 pm

      Thanks, James, that Discover essay is very well put. It’s the way Pasteur and Koch first devised vaccines.
      And the ferret looks SO cute; I’ll run out and get one right now. (Wait, where was that story about the ferret that bit the baby’s fingers off? Never mind.)


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