Security Risks of Publishing Results of Government-funded Bio Research Discussed in Report to Congress

The publication last month of federally funded research results that describe how the virulent H5N1 bird flu virus could deliberately be engineered to make it easier to spread has been the subject of a debate within scientific and privacy circles regarding the significant security risks such research could pose when made public.

Last fall, for the first time the National Institutes of Health’s National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity asked the two scientific journals, Science and Nature, to refrain from publishing specific details in reports on the research. The advisory board said conclusions from the research should be published, but not “experimental details and mutation data that would enable replication of the experiments.”

Opponents of publishing the data expressed legitimate concerns that a rogue scientist or state, or even a well-resourced terrorist organization, could turn the H5N1 bird flu into a highly lethal biological weapon. Proponents of making all the research available maintained that the world needed the research results in order to help identify dangerous mutations so that countermeasures could be developed.

More than six years ago, Homeland Security Today reported on counterterrorists’ concerns about intelligence indicating Al Qaeda had discussed using “bio-martyrs” to spread a pandemic-capable flu virus. Concerns about terrorists and rogue states developing hybrid, designer viruses as bio-weapons were again detailed by Homeland Security Today in 2009.

[Editor’s note: See Homeland Security Today director of multi-media Dan Verton’s video, Threat Matrix, in which he explores the work of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and its conclusion that a terrorist attack involving biological agents is likely to occur somewhere in the world by 2013]

Stakeholders, including the Department of Health and Human Services, the World Health Organization, journal publishers and scientists debated whether the possible benefits of publication outweighed the potential harms. In the end, editors of the scientific journalsdecided to publish modified versions of the two papers.

This week, Congressional Research Service (CRS) Specialists in Science and Technology Policy Frank Gottron and Dana Shea wrote in their report for lawmakers, Publishing Scientific Papers with Potential Security Risks: Issues for Congress, that while “the federal government generally supports the publication of federally funded research results because wide dissemination may drive innovation, job creation, technology development and the advance of science,” there are “some research results [that] could also be used for malicious purposes.”

Consequently, “Congress, the administration and other stakeholders are considering whether current policies concerning publishing such research results sufficiently balances the potential benefits with the potential harms,” Gottron and Sheanoted. “The current issues under debate cut across traditional policy areas, involving simultaneous consideration of security, scientific, health, export and international policy.”

The report describes the underlying controversy, the potential benefits and harms of publishing such research, actions taken by domestic and international stakeholders, and options to improve the way research is handled to minimize security concerns.

“The report cautiously elucidates the relevant policy implications and considers the responses available to Congress,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists’ Project on Government Secrecy.

“Because of the complexity of these issues, analysis according to one set of policy priorities may adversely affect other policy priorities,” Gottron and Shea wrote. “For example, maximizing security may lead to detriments in public health and scientific advancement, while maximizing scientific advancement may lead to security risks.”

Continuing, the CRS specialists stated that, “Accounting for such trade-offs may allow policymakers to establish regulatory frameworks that more effectively maximize the benefits from dual-use research while mitigating its potential risks.”

Gottron and Shea pointed out that “the controversy surrounding the publication of these influenza experiments demonstrated flaws in the existing federal mechanisms to identify and balance potential benefits of life science research and security trade-offs. Responding to these cases, the administration released a new government-wide policy to address some of these flaws. It requires agencies that fund life science research to regularly review research portfolios and develop methods to mitigate security risks.”

Meanwhile, however, Gottron and Shea emphasized that “it is not clear whether Congress will agree with the administration that the new policy sufficiently addresses all of the dual-use issues brought to light by this recent controversy. Congress could decide to allow the new policy to be fully implemented before evaluating whether it appropriately addresses the policy issues. Alternatively, Congress could require agencies to implement robust processes to identify potential research of concern prior to funding; require federal prepublication review of all potential research of concern to establish appropriate limits on the distribution of the research results; require federal licensing of researchers permitted to conduct such experiments and access results; and limit such research to the most safe and secure laboratories.”

The CIA began worrying in earnest about designer pathogens soon after the October 2001 anthrax attacks provided evidence indicating the anthrax had been weaponized. An expert panel was convened to study the problem and to make an assessment of the seriousnessof a synthetic viral threat.

Following an outcry from some of the scientists it empanelled to study the issue, the CIA Intelligence Directorate’s Office of Transnational Issues quietly released a short, unclassified synopsis of the academicians’ November 2003 report, The Darker Bioweapons Future. It concluded that the “growing understanding of the complex biochemical pathways that underlie life processes has the potential to enable a class of new, more virulent biological agents engineered to attack distinct biochemical pathways and elicit specific effects.”

Although the two-page abstract provided no details concerning the expertise, equipment and facilities required to develop engineered pathogens, nor a time estimate for how long the development process might take, more than five years later the CIA—and other Intelligence Community components —continue watching developments very carefully.

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