Finding Equilibrium: MARCE 2014 Public Health Preparedness Conference

February 18th, 2014

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This year’s event focused on the finding the balance between critical biodefense research and protecting the public from any misuse of this research

On February 10, 2014, CHHS convened a conference attended by nearly 85 scientists, public health officials, first responders, and the lay public to discuss Dual Use Research of Concern (DURC). DURC is defined as “life sciences research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products, or technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment, materiel, or national security.” This research can pose direct threat to the welfare of the communities in which it is conducted and, indeed the world, if appropriate security and safety measures are not implemented. However, this experimentation is critical to our understanding of pathogens and development of necessary countermeasures to prevent their spread during a naturally occurring outbreak or act of bioterrorism.

Throughout the conference, best practices in laboratory safety and security were highlighted by a series of panels comprised of biosecurity and biosafety experts from the private sector, government, academia, and the general public. One of the highlights of the day’s discussions featured a keynote address from Dr. J. Patrick Fitch, the founding Laboratory Director for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) opened in Frederick, Md. in 2013 and President of the Battelle National Biodefense Institute, LLC. Dr. Fitch highlighted his work in establishing a “culture of responsibility” at the NBACC where all of the work conducted at the research stems from a central concern about safety.

The day ultimately focused on where the appropriate balance between unfettered scientific research and ensuring public health and welfare should reside. Scientific advancement can be dramatically slowed under onerous regulatory conditions. On the other hand, unregulated or under-regulated industries are capable of misconduct detrimental to the safety of the communities in which they operate. It is critical to note that there has fortunately never been a significant outbreak in the United States and laboratory-acquired infections are rare.

There were several key takeaways from this year’s conference. First, both sides to this debate would be well-served to consider the concerns of the respective participants. Second, an open, frank, and continuous dialogue between academic, private, and governmental research and the communities in which they reside are key in dissolving some of mistrust or acrimony that can arise. Finally, policy makers should understand the existing lack of knowledge about what kinds of research is being conducted within any given laboratory in their community and, based upon an evaluation of risks, consider mechanisms to ensure that their communities are appropriately protected.

 

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