View from the terrace of villa Dautreme near Saint Tropez by the French painter, engraver and draftsman Lionel Floch (1895-1972)
This is a must for any Biosafety Now reader as it is clear and relevant even though issued almost 20 years ago. It is signed by more than 60 national scientific societies around the globe, including the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). Despite this, it is virtually unknown to biologists.
It was released ahead of the December 2005 Meeting of States Parties of the Biological Weapons Convention in Geneva, so the context is clear. Obviously, it preceded the misnamed Gain of Function (GOF) controversy that erupted in late 2011 when virologists created in the lab avian flu strains that could transmit between mammals – and possibly spark a pandemic.
In the IAP’s own words ‘These principles represent fundamental issues that should be taken into account when formulating codes of conduct.’ It was a working document, a recommendation, and non-binding. And while the context of regulating biological weapons is ongoing and highly politicized, even more so today than in 2005, some of these national science academies could have seized the occasion to educate scientists in their own countries where they were sovereign.
Let’s focus on the first and fifth principles.
#1 ‘Awareness. Scientists have an obligation to do no harm. They should always take into consideration the reasonably foreseeable consequences of their own activities. They should therefore: always bear in mind the potential consequences – possibly harmful – of their research. They should and recognize that individual good conscience does not justify ignoring the possible misuse of their scientific endeavour.’
Scientists compete for funding from national and philanthropic organizations to help advance knowledge. The trust in science, the hope, is that some time, some place down the line their work will help alleviate the burden of disease, misery and pain. Accepting to do no harm is an incredibly low bar. Surely that’s not a big ask in 2024. At best it’s preserving the status quo.
Medics take the Hippocratic oath upon completing their medical theses. By contrast, On reading has a PhD in biochemistry and quickly ended up working on HIV. With years of virology in mind he could perhaps conjure up something pretty nasty, something that could do harm. After all, if scientists working for military biological warfare programs can do such things, me too.
So long as you think a little about the possible ramifications of your work, you’re probably on the right track. National science academies with their authority could help rather than leave it to the individual, which has been the soft option to date.
Funding bodies could easily add a small box to their grant submission forms next to the words: I promise to do no harm. There is little doubt most PhDs would tick the box if it was a prerequisite to obtaining a grant. This would fall short of taking a personal Hippocratic oath – what do you do about all those established scientists who have not taken it? – but would quickly create a norm. Is that too much to ask? Especially as the bar is so low.
Still under Awareness, the next two sentences are most interesting. Scientists must ‘recognize that individual good conscience does not justify ignoring the possible misuse of their scientific endeavour’. Emphasis added. Basically, scientists must realize that they cannot do their thing and assume responsibility stops with publication. If someone else picks up their work and misuses it, then the initial authors are inescapably part of the equation.
After hearing a talk on the Russian bioweapons program at the 2014 Volkswagen Foundation conference on GOF research, advocate Ron Fouchier got up and said he wasn’t a bioterrorist. Of course he wasn’t. However, what he was doing was akin to what a scientist in a military bioweapons program could do – making the world a more dangerous place. Scientists have to get beyond their immediate concerns.
The fifth principle is equally good, equally pertinent.
#5 ‘Oversight. Scientists with responsibility for oversight of research or for evaluation of projects or publications should promote adherence to these principles by those under their control, supervision or evaluation and act as role models in this regard.’
In one fell swoop, this draws in the science administrators, review bodies, watchdogs and journal editors. Not only that, but they should also act as role models. Yep. Over GOF virology many have stumbled while most have remained silent.
The IAP’s observations back then are as pertinent today, and perhaps more so – science administrators, review bodies, watchdogs and journal editors etc. should renew their efforts to ensure science is carried out as safely as possible.