Advances in the life sciences and technology are making vital contributions to
improving global health. New scientific insights that are subsequently translated into technology and refined, adapted and assimilated by innovative processes play a crucial role in advancing knowledge and addressing critical societal challenges. Yet, transformative developments in a wide range of fields can also pose risks to global health. It is therefore prudent to assess the potential adverse consequences of choosing particular technological pathways and potentially deleterious applications of technologies.
Dual-use research of concern (DURC) is defined as life science research that is intended for benefit but which might be misapplied to do harm. Such research has increased substantially in the past two decades. It includes, for instance, synthesis of the poliovirus, modification of the mousepox virus, production of mammal-transmissible strains of H5N1 avian flu and, more recently, de-novo synthesis of the horsepox virus. Dual-use issues can arise in a range of disciplines, beyond experiments for gain of function.
WHO both assesses and addresses concerns about dual use of scientific and technological developments by setting normative standards, issuing guidance and guidelines and facilitating discussions among stakeholders. In 2010, WHO issued guidance on responsible research, and, more recently, the WHO’s Thirteenth General Programme of Work (2019-2023) mandated that WHO should “be at the forefront of … new scientific fields and the challenges they pose” and should closely monitor and provide guidance on “developments at the frontier of new scientific disciplines”. In 2020, WHO convened discussions with key stakeholder groups, including funding organizations, scientific journals and scientific academies and councils, and issued guidance on biosafety and biosecurity in biomedical laboratories. WHO is currently developing a new guidance framework on responsible use of life sciences.
We report here the results of an international horizon scanning exercise, organized by WHO to ensure foresight. The group of experts, from a range of disciplines, undertook a broad examination of scientific and technological developments that could give rise to concern over the next two decades and identified 15 priorities.