The German Ethics Council discusses the risks of misuse of research by bioterrorists

At a public hearing on 25 April 2013 the Ethics Council questioned nine experts on possible ways of preventing the misuse of biological research by third parties without imposing excessive restrictions on the freedom of research. The results will be incorporated in an Opinion on biosecurity which the Ethics Council is currently drafting in response to a commission by the Federal Government.

During the past year laboratory-modified viruses that permit airborne transmission of avian influenza between mammals were the occasion for a fresh debate on biosecurity and for the Federal Government’s commission to the Ethics Council. After all, while the findings of research on the modifiability of pathogens are deemed important in preparing for new epidemics, the concern is that they might also be misused to make biological weapons.

At the public hearing, nine experts responded to the Ethics Council’s questions on the subject. The debate on the appropriateness of voluntary codes of conduct was of particular interest. Such codes are intended to make both research workers and those responsible for decisions on the funding of research projects and the publication of their results aware of the risks of misuse and to facilitate the prevention of such misuse.

The first contribution was from Hans-Dieter Klenk, a virologist, who reviewed the current potential for misuse of research in the life sciences. He considered that experiments on modifying the hazardousness of viruses were indispensable, while a ban on research and publication was unacceptable. In his analysis of the ethical issues, the philosopher Torsten Wilholt pointed out that freedom and responsibility in research always went hand in hand. Yet pure self-regulation was inappropriate in the field of science, because, given that their aim was the acquisition of new knowledge, researchers would always be reluctant to reject a given project. In his own analysis in terms of constitutional law, Thomas Würtenberger, a jurist, weighed the duty of protection against the freedom of research and concluded that the need was for careful selection of the most effective approach to protection on a case-by-case basis. This could include biosecurity committees if their decisions could be reviewed by the courts.

Bärbel Dickmann, an academic whose particular fields of interest are cultural studies and medicine, drew attention to the specific challenges presented by the communication of risk in relation to the risks of misuse in research. The huge gulf between risk analyses on the one hand and society’s perception of risks on the other needed to be bridged.

Elisabeth Knust, Vice-President of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft [German Research Foundation], noted that the system of reviewing the risks of misuse prior to the allocation of funds already operated effectively. Wolfgang van den Daele, a social scientist, called for the inclusion of wider-ranging issues in the process of information and discourse within society. The danger presented by biosecurity committees, if used, was that they might confine their deliberations to matters of security alone.

Christof Potthof, of Gen-ethisches Netzwerk e. V., advocated binding statutory regulation with a view to minimizing risk, as well as a stricter requirement to include biosecurity issues in the training of the next generation of scientists. Peer Stähler, of the International Association Synthetic Biology (IASB), described the voluntary monitoring mechanisms applied by the IASB’s member companies in the sale of products of gene synthesis. He pointed out that major differences between countries still remained in terms of the regulation of biosecurity issues and awareness of the problem.

Volker Beck, a security consultant, stated that risk minimization, defensive measures to combat risk, and preparation for optimum management of resources and communication in the event of a crisis were the principal considerations in protection of the population. Mr Beck on the whole took a favourable view of the relevant German regulations, although there seemed to be little awareness of the problem among both the public and the research community, especially in the universities.

In questions and contributions to the debate, the matters addressed by the members of the Ethics Council included the possibility of an overarching code of conduct for science, biosecurity committees that could also review individual cases, and possible new risks accruing from research conducted outside established institutions.

The programme of the hearing and the presentations and contributions to the debate can be accessed here (in German).