But these technological fixes do little to address the underlying debate about how society decides what kinds of experiments should be done in the first place, let alone published. Few countries have clear procedures for reviewing dual-use research. The U.S. has perhaps the strongest policy, but it still has several loopholes. It only covers 15 big, bad pathogens, and horsepox, though related to one, isn’t one itself. It also only covers federally funded research, and Evans’s research was privately funded. He did his work in Canada, but he could just as easily have done so in the U.S.
Absent clearer guidelines, the burden falls on the scientific enterprise to self-regulate—and it isn’t set up to do that well. Academia is intensely competitive, and “the drivers are about getting grants and publications, and not necessarily about being responsible citizens,” says Filippa Lentzos from King’s College London, who studies biological threats. This means that scientists often keep their work to themselves for fear of getting scooped by their peers. Their plans only become widely known once they’ve already been enacted, and the results are ready to be presented or published. This lack of transparency creates an environment where people can almost unilaterally make decisions that could affect the entire world.
Take the horsepox study. Evans was a member of a World Health Organization committee that oversees smallpox research, but he only told his colleagues about the experiment after it was completed. He sought approval from biosafety officers at his university, and had discussions with Canadian federal agencies, but it’s unclear if they had enough ethical expertise to fully appreciate the significance of the experiment. “It’s hard not to feel like he opted for agencies that would follow the letter of the law without necessarily understanding what they were approving,” says Kelly Hills, a bioethicist at Rogue Bioethics.
She also sees a sense of impulsive recklessness in the interviews that Evans gave earlier this year. Science reported that he did the experiment “in part to end the debate about whether recreating a poxvirus was feasible.” And he told NPR that “someone had to bite the bullet and do this.” To Hills, that sounds like I did it because I could do it. “We don’t accept those arguments from anyone above age 6,” she says.
Even people who are sympathetic to Evans’s arguments agree that it’s problematic that so few people knew about the work before it was completed. “I can’t emphasize enough that when people in the security community feel like they’ve been blindsided, they get very concerned,” says Diane DiEuliis from National Defense University, who studies dual-use research.
The same debates played out in 2002, when other researchers synthesized poliovirus in a lab. And in 2005, when another group resurrected the flu virus behind the catastrophic 1918 pandemic. And in 2012, when two teams mutated H5N1 flu to be more transmissible in mammals, in a bid to understand how that might happen in the wild. Many of the people I spoke with expressed frustration over this ethical Möbius strip. “It’s hard not to think that we’re moving in circles,” Hills says. “Can we stop saying we need to have a conversation and actually get to the conversation?”