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Biotechnological Research in the Age of Terrorism

The same advanced biological knowledge, techniques and technology that promise unprecedented bio-benefits could also permit even small groups of informed terrorists to unleash unprecedented bio-damage.

 

Nations seek to parry this threat by upgrading prevention, defense and response measures. In practice, prevention - the focus of the Israel Academy’s Steering Committee on Biotechnological Research in an Age of Terrorism (COBRAT) - involves legislation, monitoring, supply regimes and treaties. U.S. legislation (1981, 2001, 2002, 2003) was followed by a U.S. National Research Council report (2004), with recommendations on how to prevent unauthorized transfer of biotechnological information of potential use in bioweaponry. On the other hand, blanket or clumsy restrictions on information - particularly academic scientific publications - could have disastrous effects on essential scientific creativity and progress.

 

Israel has a relatively large and productive life sciences research community, working at the cutting-edge of many advanced fields, such as molecular biology. Organizationally and functionally, this world-class system is extremely decentralized, with little external oversight. Although Israel does have a comprehensive, legislated and respected infrastructure to ensure biosafety in the workplace, it has no such infrastructure for biosecurity; and awareness of biosecurity issues among Israeli researchers is minimal. This combination is of some concern.

 

After considerable investigation and discussion, the Committee made ten specific recommendations. Israel must educate its research community regarding the potential unforseen implications and risks of dual-use (seemingly innocuous) biological research results. It should also educate its leadership on the need for new legislation and structures to responsibly formulate, implement and oversee biosecurity-related procedures.

 

However, the Committee also recognized that, in Israel, the legislative process can be complex, slow and uncertain. It therefore recommended that Israel, in the interim, use existing national biosafety legislation and university biosafety oversight procedures as models for ministerial executive orders, and that it expand existing internal university procedures to cover biosecurity issues as well.

 

Local responsibility for enforcement should be delegated to existing university biosafety committees (suitably expanded) and special central biosafety and security committees (for government laboratories). Such internal academic committees, staffed by academicians who understand biological research and the research environment, are already well-tolerated by the academic community, work well, and generate minimal friction. Such self-regulation is far preferable - to all concerned - than unwieldy, externally imposed sanctions. General oversight should be provided by a National Biosecurity Council (NBC) appointed by the Minister of Health.

 

The NBC should also formulate an updateable core-list of regulated pathogens; and Israel’s existing export regulations should be expanded to encompass the importation and sale of dual-use biological equipment and agents.

 

Biosecurity issues could also be addressed at a research grant’s peer-review stage, since this involves informed scientific judgement and can obviate later delays and conflicts regarding the publication of results. Ideally, only (relatively few) unexpected dual-use issues would surface at a later stage. In particular, Israel’s funding agencies should include biosecurity among the issues which already require institutional certification on all research grant proposals.

 

The Committee’s balanced, pragmatic approach was well-received by decisionmakers, both within Israel and abroad. The Committee’s recommendations were first formally approved by both the Israel Academy and the Israel National Security Council, and then submitted to the Science and Technology Committee of the Knesset (Israel’s parliament).

 

The main recommendations were incorporated into the Knesset’s Regulation of Research into Biological Disease Agents Act of 2008. The report has also been discussed at several international conferences on the “dual-use research dilemma.”