During the Meeting of Experts of states parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) last August, the Netherlands organised or co-hosted three side events relating to safeguarding the life sciences. A significant incident, in which the Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier and his team were required to obtain an export licence to publish their research on how they had mutated H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible avian influenza virus variant, undeniably informed the need to clarify national policies and approaches to biorisk management. A month earlier the Appellate Court had annulled the ruling by a lower court in support of the government position on procedural grounds. Does this annulment validate the Dutch government’s position or does it imply that the whole debate about the publication of so-called dual-use research in the life sciences is back to square one? Moreover, in the meantime the debate had evolved from a terrorist proliferation risk to one of health security in which the ethics and utility of this type of gain-of-function research stand central. In other words, do biosafety worries warrant biosecurity policy measures, such as the imposition of non-proliferation export controls?
Dual-use research of concern—often referred to by its ugly acronym, DURC—is another one of those moronic concepts to have entered the disarmament / arms control discourse as a diversion from real disarmament questions. Of concern to whom? Who defines the dual-use characteristics of research? Who defines the threat? And why the heck should we be scared again of any new development? Anyway, the term is also tautological: Is there dual-use research not of concern?
The term arose in the biological field: genetic manipulations of pathogens to better understand possible mutations might increase infectivity among humans. The risk of escape from laboratories or laboratory accidents drive the concerns about this type of research. Initially the threat was presented as one of catastrophic terrorism. Now the debate has abated somewhat, but global health concerns continue to animate discussions. Meanwhile, the DURC label has stuck. So questions animating debates under the banner of biological weapons control are whether research can be published in full or whether scientists should apply for an export license to have their results printed in overseas scientific journals.