ECDC urges discussion on dual-use research

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) advocated for open discussion last week on studies where potential pandemic threats are created as part of dual-use research.

The call for a European forum on dual-use research came after a recent study published in Cell Host & Microbe in which reverse genetics were used to generate an avian influenza close to the deadly 1918 influenza virus. The researchers demonstrated what mutations would be required for the virus to become easily transmissible between mammals. The authors findings suggested that the potential exists for a 1918-like pandemic virus to emerge from the avian virus gene pool, according to an ECDC press release.

The ECDC said the new study confirms the power of recombinant technology to create pathogenic viruses that are not circulating in nature.

"From the public health perspective, this poses a risk both for the laboratory personnel working with these viruses, even in very secure biosafety conditions, and to the general public in case of a laboratory escape," the ECDC said. "Recent incidents remind us that laboratory accidents and laboratory escapes can happen with dangerous pathogens, even if the highest security standards are applied."

The agency said developments in technology should not be stopped, but the recent gain of pathogenic function studies among pathogens has resulted in scientific controversy. The ECDC said research groups often justify their research agenda with pandemic preparedness and better understanding of avian flu without specifying how the results would improve preparedness plans. It suggested a European forum to discuss concerns about dual-use research.

"A forum for public health discussion around dual-use research of concern topics is not yet available at (the) European level," the ECDC said. "ECDC advocates for open discussion about studies where potential pandemic threats are created. The research community should in all their work apply the medical ethical principle of 'first do no harm.'"