The Importance of Understanding the DURC Debate


While we look to emerging infectious disease outbreaks and the threat of biological weapons, it's easy to forget the responsibilities of our domestic research.

While the presidential inauguration stole most of the headlines, just weeks before the new White House recommendations for gain-of-function (GoF) research were released. It’s easy for infectious disease news to miss the impact of dual-use research of concern (DURC) progress.

It was only in 2014 that President Obama put forth a moratorium on GoF research related to MERS, SARS, and H5N1, after a series of biosafety failures, compounded by two controversial 2011 H5N1 studies, which made waves regarding the security implications of their publication. The new policy guidance, “Recommended Policy Guidance for Departmental Development of Review Mechanisms for Potential Pandemic Pathogen Care and Oversight (P3CO)”, not only puts forth a new name for GoF of concern (now called P3C0), but enhances the NSABB (National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity) recommendations that were published in May 2016.

NSABB’s history has been rather tumultuous as it went back and forth on its recommendations to publish those controversial H5N1 studies, which led to a reduction in its power. The GoF recommendations were, to many, a way for them to earn back some of their authority. Most of the recommendations focus on pre-funding review mechanisms and policies that ensure the appropriate review processes are performed if a project meets certain criteria (potential pandemic pathogen classification means that it’s highly transmissible within the human population and highly virulent.). Enhanced PPP (or P3) means that the potential pandemic pathogen has been enhanced to be more transmissible and/or virulent.

While this is all well and good, why am I hammering on about this? Aside from the hot debate that is DURC, it is important to really understand these threats to global health security. Sure, we know that bioterrorism and natural occurring diseases are the fears that we’re struggling to combat, but what about bioerror? Should we conduct this research, let alone publish it?

Within this debate, there is a substantial emphasis on the importance of transparency and a culture of responsibility within the science community. Hiding research can increase the public’s distrust of the science community as well as encourage other countries to view our research/biodefense programs as secretive and therefore hiding offensive work (which would violate the Biological Weapons Convention). The debate is endless and as many would say, a wicked problem.

My emphasis on this research and the recent policy changes is to draw attention to this debate and what it might mean for the future. P3C0 and DURC research has the potential to teach what it would take for diseases to become more transmissible or resistant to medications. It also has the potential for biosafety/biosecurity failures that could result in public exposure. Many scientists within this deliberation have pointed out that people do not go into science for malicious intent, but rather it’s easy to get lost in the trees and fail to see the forest. It’s important that we see the points and perils of both sides, but also work to incorporate more civil science into regulatory and policy talks. Understanding the concerns of DURC and how researchers can combat and correct them through a broader, more open dialogue is vital.

Overall, the threat of emerging infectious diseases and potential biological terrorism is real, but we must also see the bigger global health security picture that includes research and genome editing, like CRISPR. Bioerror knowledge should not be limited to those working within a lab, but the overall science community to better support and guide the future of policy and research.

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