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‘Mandatory Oversight’ Of Potentially Dangerous Biological Research Will Be Necessary

“In the sobering annals of disaster prevention, genetic manipulation of the H5N1 influenza virus is looming as a seminal case,” John Steinbruner, director of the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland, writes in an opinion piece in The Hill’s “Congress Blog,” noting that two “laboratory experiments have rendered the highly virulent avian strain transmissible among ferrets, strongly suggesting that it would be transmissible among humans as well.” He states, “If the virus could achieve efficient transmissibility while retaining anything like its current case fatality rate [of 50 percent], it could inflict global disaster of unprecedented proportions.” The actions of the U.S. National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, initially recommending publication of redacted versions of the two studies then reversing that decision, “implicitly concedes that the U.S. alone cannot exercise comprehensive jurisdiction,” Steinbruner writes.

Though “some prudential oversight of highly consequential biological research is being practiced in some countries,” it is “largely voluntary,” inconsistent, and not global in scope, he states, adding, “A more effective arrangement would have to be mandatory and would have to be based on the principle of independent oversight applied to other matters of great consequence,” such as economy or nuclear weapons. Steinbruner outlines his vision of the “basic features of an appropriate oversight arrangement” for biological research, including vetting by global public health experts, and notes “less that one percent of current biomedical research efforts would be affected.” He concludes, “[I]t is prudent to assume that protective regulation will ultimately have to be imposed. Whether comprehension evolves naturally or is forced by disaster, mandatory oversight will eventually be indispensable. The sooner and the more gracefully that is realized the better off we all will be” (4/30).