The dual-use dilemma for the life sciences: perspectives, conundrums, and global solutions

Biosecur Bioterror. 2006;4(3):276-86. doi: 10.1089/bsp.2006.4.276.


The term "dual-use" traditionally has been used to describe technologies that could have both civilian and military usage, but this term has at least three different dimensions that pose a dilemma for modern biology and its possible misuse for hostile purposes: (1) ostensibly civilian facilities that are in fact intended for military or terrorist bioweapons development and production; (2) equipment and agents that could be misappropriated and misused for biological weapons development and production; and (3) the generation and dissemination of scientific knowledge that could be misapplied for biological weapons development and production. These three different aspects of the "dual-use dilemma" are frequently confused--each demands a distinct approach within a "web of prevention" in order to reduce the future risk of bioterrorism and biowarfare. This article discusses the nature of the different perspectives and divergent approaches as a contribution to finding a scientifically acceptable global solution to the problem posed by the dual-use dilemma. We propose that: (1) facilities that are intended for bioweapons development and production should be primarily prevented by a strengthened Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) effectively implemented in all nation states, one that includes provisions for adequate transparency to improve confidence and a mechanism for thorough inspections when there is sufficient cause, and enhanced law enforcement activities involving international cooperation and sharing of critical intelligence information; (2) potentially dual-use equipment and agents should be available to legitimate users for peaceful purposes, but strengthened national biosafety and physical and personnel biosecurity controls in all nations together with effective export controls should be implemented to limit the potential for the misappropriation of such equipment and materials; and (3) information should be openly accessible by the global scientific community, but a culture of responsible conduct involving the breadth of the international life sciences communities should be adopted to protect the ongoing revolution in the life sciences from being hijacked for hostile misuse of the knowledge generated and communicated by life scientists.

MeSH terms

  • Access to Information
  • Biological Science Disciplines*
  • Biological Warfare / prevention & control*
  • Biotechnology
  • Containment of Biohazards / standards*
  • Diffusion of Innovation
  • Global Health
  • Humans
  • International Cooperation
  • Military Science*
  • Public Health
  • Security Measures / standards*
  • Social Responsibility