By Yong-Bee Lim
Nature Protocols published an article on January 29, 2021 that is making waves in the biorisk community. Titled “Engineering SARS-CoV-2 Using a Reverse Genetic System,” this article outlines a detailed protocol on how researchers can engineer variants of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2: the causative pathogen of COVID-19.
Initial reactions to the article have resulted in two opposing views. One view considers the protocol’s release to be ill-advised. Advocates of this view argue that malevolent actors could appropriate the protocol for nefarious ends.
The opposing view considers the protocol’s release to be practical and necessary. Advocates of this view argue that the spread and rapid mutation of SARS-CoV-2 necessitates sharing such protocols to hasten global research and response to the ongoing pandemic.
This article is the latest in a series of scientific publications that the biorisk community has grappled with under the framework of dual-use research: studies conducted for legitimate purposes that generate knowledge, products, and technologies that have both beneficial and harmful applications. A better understanding of immunology can inform scientists on methods to either enhance or undermine the human immune system. A more effective technique for editing genetic material can contribute to novel gene treatments or engineered pathogens. An efficient powder aerosolizer can be a delivery mechanism for both inhalational therapies and biological weapons.
Popular past examples of dual-use research in the life sciences include the chemical synthesis of polio in 2002, the reconstruction of the causative viral pathogen for the 1918 influenza pandemic in 2005, the H5N1 avian influenza gain-of-function experiments in 2012, and the synthetic re-construction of a horsepox virus in 2018. One common thread that all of these controversial experiments and article releases share is how two oppositional viewpoints dominate the conversation: one side extolling the benefits of the research, while an opposing side disparages the irresponsibility involved to conduct the research.
“Engineering SARS-CoV-2 Using a Reverse Genetic System” will not be the last dual-use article published in the life sciences. Fortunately, the release of a protocol alone is not sufficient to replicate its intended outcome. Knowledge and skills barriers in the form of tacit knowledge continue to play a role in both the spread of highly specialized practices and techniques in the life sciences. Other intangible factors such as norms and motivations play a decisive role in whether adversaries would seek to use these dual-use publications directly, or as inspiration, for harm.
Therefore, one step to help break the binary stalemate is to move beyond the fixation of assessing the benefits and risks of dual-use research based solely on the technical elements and outcomes of dual-use research. We should broaden the aperture to include the motivations of state and non-state actors, norms, and existing barriers to knowledge transference and successful research outcomes as well . Including these factors in our analysis makes it more likely to understand both the real-world benefits of life science advances, as well as a more realistic likelihood of the potential for abuse of dual-use research.
Yong-Bee Lim is a Fellow at the Council on Strategic Risks