Mutant Bird Flu and the search for a solution to the problem of dual-use research

This seminar will discuss the problem of dual-use research, which gained notoriety after the US Department of Health and Human Services recommended changes to two academic papers on the H5N1 virus.

Think of bird flu and you probably conjure up an image of wet markets full of clucking chickens, roosters and the like in south Asia. What probably doesn’t immediately come to mind is a terrorist grouping such as al-Qaida using bird flu [usually referred to as avian flu] as a biological weapon of mass destruction. However, it is just that image that the United States’ National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity [NSABB] had in mind when in December 2011 it suggested that the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommend changes be made to two academic papers on the H5N1 virus responsible for avian flu.

The resulting furore over what was perceived as an attack on academic freedom prompted much hand wringing, calls for further and ‘better’ regulation of so-called dual-use research and prompted the World Health Organisation to look further at the issue. In this paper, I will look at the broader question of what to do about the problem of dual-use research. My intention is not to provide a descriptive ‘blow-by-blow- account’ of the vociferous debate that has raged over the H5N1 papers but rather to position dual-use research in its international context as well as suggest a number of fundamental principles which should lie at the heart of decision-making in this policy domain.

Dr Stephanie Switzer is a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde.