Primum non nocere - Why engineer microbes to be more dangerous to humankind?

"When it comes to assessing the risks of dual-use research in life sciences, the public health sector should be engaged from the onset” - European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)


  1. At ESCAIDE 2014, ECDC hosted an interactive session on dual-use research. The aim was to raise awareness and elicit a debate with invited panellists and the conference audience.
  2. ECDC coordinated this session to raise awareness and elicit debate with this specialized public health professional audience, our invited panelists, and ECDC debate “challengers” who represented the opposing views of those invited experts that could not attend the meeting.
  3. The panelists, (Prof Simon Wain-Hobson, Dr Filippa Lentzos, Dr Cornelius Schmaltz and Dr Asa Bjorndal) were selected to bring into the discussions the different perspectives from the researcher, biosecurity/biosafety experts, funders, policy makers and otherwise general society at large.
  4. A challenger team from ECDC added more vibe to the discussion: Dr. Jonathan Suk, Dr. Cornelius Bartels, and Dr. EevaBroberg – experts in biosecurity, biosafety, public health, preparedness, sociology, medicine, and virology research. The audience engaged through Q&A, social media and a real-time voting. The debate was moderated by co-Chairs Dr. Amanda Ozin (Senior Expert Microbiology, ECDC) and Prof Johan Giesecke (former ECDC Chief Scientist, now Professor at Karolinska University Sweden). The audience was engaged through Q&A, social media and a real-time voting.

  5. Setting the scene

  6. Dr Ozin opened the session with an overview of the public health view on biorisks and set the scene for the debate.
  7. See Dr Ozin's presentation here
  8. Her main message was that “human directed evolution”, a term adopted from Laurie Garret's TED talk in 2014, is a new threat that needs the attention of the public health community.
  9. Directing evolution: Laurie Garrett at TEDxDanubia 2014
  10. Human directed evolution includes the concept of research that involves deliberate engineering microorganisms that could potentially be more dangerous to humans. One example of this includes transmissibility studies on avian influenza strains such as H5N1, also commonly referred to as “gain of function” research.
  11. Dr. Ozin also highlighted the concern of the ECDC Director Marc Sprenger, when he became aware of the letters that were sent from the European Society of Virology (ESV) and the Foundation for Vaccine Research (FVR) to President Barroso earlier this year.
  12. Dr Ozin explained that our coordination of this ESCAIDE debate on "gain of function" research is one of ECDC's ways of contributing to the dialogue by engaging experts in the public health sector.
  13. The debate

  14. Dr. Wain-Hobson argued that there is “nothing to good to be gained from gain-of-function research” for both scientific and ethical reasons.
  15. He was one of the signatories of the FVR letter to former Commissioner Barrosso. As a HIV virologist, he finds that the benefits have been oversold, that there are solid scientific reasons for an open dialogue and a robust review of science.
  16. Dr. Wain-Hobson felt that virology cannot go blindly on ignoring the concerns of others, the small but non-zero risk of catastrophic potential and the liability and diplomatic issues that would so arise - that the stakes were to high to be left to virologists.
  17. See Dr. Wain-Hobson's presentation here
  18. Dr. Lentzos followed with an eloquent presentation of the history of biological warfare and the “threat of manufactured disease” in the context of the gain-of-function research debate. Her conclusions were very clear about the types of threats, likelihood, and potential impact.