Skip to main content

Dual-Use Threats: The Case of Biological Technology

Back to All Publications
This chapter is published in Governance of Dual Use Technologies Theory and Practice, which is edited by Elisa Harris and published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In February 2001, the Journal of Virology published the results of a scientific experiment in which Australian researchers exploring contraceptive alternatives to pesticides for controlling the mouse population unexpectedly produced a lethal mousepox virus and, in the process, demonstrated how a new, highly virulent pathogen might be constructed. This work might well have gone unnoticed by most people, other than interested scientists, had it not been for the fact that seven months later, terrorist attacks were carried out on the U.S. World Trade Center and the Pentagon and a series of letters containing highgrade anthrax spores were sent to selected U.S. media outlets and members of Congress. The latter events, which killed five and injured seventeen others, unleashed an epidemic of fear that terrorists would attack America again, only this time the weapon of choice would not be a commercial airliner but a biological agent that would cause death on a massive scale. Government officials and commentators alike warned that it was not a matter of whether bioterrorists would strike but of when. Prior to September 11 and the anthrax letters, biological threats were seen largely through the lens of biosafety or nonproliferation—that is, ensuring that scientists’ use of hazardous biological materials did not threaten human health or the environment, or preventing government-led programs aimed at developing and producing biological weapons. By the end of 2001, a new threat had been added to these traditional concerns: terrorist acquisition or use of biological agents. Efforts to counter the theft, diversion, or malicious use of dangerous pathogens and toxins by terrorists came to be known as biosecurity. Over the past half century, many different governance measures have been adopted and still others proposed to prevent both accidental and deliberate releases of biological agents and the corresponding damage, human and financial, this would cause. These measures span multiple levels: international, national, local, and individual. They also take many forms: legally binding treaties, United Nations (UN) Security Council resolutions, and intergovernmental decisions; national laws and regulations; like-minded government policies; national and departmental policies; guidelines and standards; and scientific codes. Taken together, they help to form what some have called a “web of prevention.” But, like any web, there are gaps. This chapter begins with a brief discussion of why governance of biological materials, equipment, and information is so inherently difficult. It then considers some of the most important governance measures that have been adopted at the international level, in the United States, and in other countries. These measures are grouped by their primary objectives: preventing the development and possession of biological warfare agents or weapons; controlling access to dual-use biological materials, equipment, or associated information that could be used for hostile purposes; promoting the safe and secure handling of pathogens and toxins inside and outside the laboratory; and ensuring that the risks from the most consequential types of biological research are properly identified, assessed, and mitigated before the work is carried out. The chapter then looks at two other types of governance measures that have been prominent in the dual-use biological technology debate, and concludes with a discussion of the key challenges confronting further efforts to mitigate dual-use risks in this area.

View All Publications