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The offensive-defensive distinction in military biological research.

Should medical researchers not participate in military biological research? The argument for "no participation " falsely assumes there is no practical and moral distinction between offensive and defensive military biological research.

In April 1989, the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command published the Final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) that allowed the Biological Defense Research Program (BDRP) to continue. This document states that the purpose of the BDRP is to maintain and promote national defense with respect to potential biological wayfare threats.

The major objectives of the BDRP are to develop measures for detection, treatment, protection from, and decontamination of potential biological warfare agents; and development of medical defenses, prophylactic vaccines and drugs, therapeutic measures, and management of protocols. The impact statement holds that, in addition to promoting the national defense through improvements in diagnostic methods and drug therapies, such a program would benefit the scientific community in general.

Though supposedly dealing only with environmental concerns of the BDRP, the FEIS has created the opportunity for organizations and individuals to voice their opposition to the entire biological defense program. The document opens the way for arguments such as those raised by Jonathan King, Charles Pillar, or Barbara Hatch Rosenberg that the BDRP could foster the development of offensive weapons or encourage other nations to do so, thus spawning a biological weapons race. (1) This opposition stems from serious concerns about rDNA technology and genetically engineered microorganisms that have driven many biomedical scientists to refuse to participate in Pentagon-sponsored medical research. (2) Some researchers are even signing pledges not to engage knowingly in research they believe will further the development of biological agents. (3) (see p. 21)

I want to consider here what I will call the "no participation" argument, of which the Committee for Responsible Genetics (and Jonathan King as their spokesman) are perhaps the principle proponents. (4) Behind this argument is an assumption that no real distinction exists between offensive and defensive biological research. If this claim is true, then we must ask whether people who conduct this research for the military establishment face a healing-killing moral conflict. Further, if such a conflict exists, are researchers morally obligated to stop conducting military medical research to conform to the traditional moral standard of the healing professions? I think the assumption of the "no participation" argument is false, though ensuring we do only defensive biological research is a moral imperative. Research Gains, Moral Questions

The "no participation" argument presents several problems. Superficially, it posits "nonparticipation" as the way to dissociate oneself from evil. This eliminates working within the system to generate reform, whistle-blowing on violations of agreements prohibiting offensive weapons developments, or developing experimental pathways that ensure biomedical scientists do not cross the line between offensive and defensive research.

Moreover, complete dissociation from military biological research programs risks losing benevolent gains in vaccine development and drug therapies. American soldiers, who may be deployed worldwide, face a real threat from naturally occurring endemic diseases.

In Europe, in the fall of 1944 during the Lorraine campaign American forces suffered the loss of 46,000 troops-the equivalent of three infantry divisions-to disease and nonbattle injury. (5) In Vietnam, from 1966 to 1969, disease accounted for every four of six hospitalizations (battle and nonbattle injury accounting for the other two). In fact, disease was the single greatest cause of morbidity during our involvement in the Vietnam War. (6)

The medical situation in Vietnam could have been much worse if not for the efforts of military biological research and development. Although disease accounted for about two-thirds of all hospital admissions in Vietnam, this admission rate was approximately one-third of that for the China-Burrna-India and Southwest Pacific theaters in World War II, and more than 40 percent less than the rate for the Korean War.

Today, biomedical advances in genetic engineering make it possible to produce large quantities of vaccines against naturally occurring toxins that American soldiers are likely to encounter worldwide. In further application of these advances, Army researchers are looking for a single vaccine that will protect against a whole family of exotic endemic diseases. Such developments make it possible to provide preventive medicine to American soldiers, thereby enhancing their mission effectiveness.

In the past, such advances in vaccine research have not only aided in safeguarding the lives of American soldiers but have produced public health benefits as well. Although any public health benefits are merely added advantages and not the direct aim of the BDRP, such gains do argue for continuing the program.

This portrayal of military biological research does not persuade everyone of its nonmaleficent nature. Although this type of research seems consistent with a primary purpose of medicine--the promoting of health-Jonathan King, for example, claims that military biomedical research serves a dual purpose. King concedes this research can develop vaccines to protect soldiers-and ultimately civilians; but it can also lead to the production of new offensive biological weapons. (7) Such a claim implies that no practical distinction exists between offensive and defensive medical research. The "No Participation" Argument

In calling military biomedical research into question, King appeals to the traditional ethic of the healing professions: That the science whose origin was the prevention of disease and the alleviation of human suffering should be transformed into a new technology of human destruction is a tragedy of historic importance. (8)

His concern is that biotechnology not only produces vaccines for defense purposes but can also produce new organisms that could be used as offensive agents. He alleges that "the spread of disease is so unpredictable and the range of biological agents that could be used is so large that the very concept of defending against biological warfare is misleading." Vaccine research for defensive purposes is, therefore, futile. As King ultimately concludes, "offensive and defensive BW programs have the same components. The data gained from the defensive BW testing is the same information needed to develop offensive capability." (9) Vaccine research, he contends, is necessarily offensive in nature, done to protect against one's own offensive agents of mass destruction. This violates the traditional ethic of the healing sciences.

We can reconstruct the argument as follows: * There is an ethical tradition of healing in medicine that all cultures revere and depend upon. * New technology in medicine is a double-edged sword with the potential for benevolent gains and concomitant harms. * If there is concomitant harm and benefit resulting from medical developments in general then there is a conflict between harms (biological weapons development) and benefits (vaccine and drug therapies) in military medical research as well; we must then ask if the benefits are sufficient to warrant the risk of the harms. Since the only rationale for developing a defense (vaccine) against a known agent is when one is planning to use that agent in an offensive mode, there is no distinction between offensive and defensive military biomedical research. Thus all such research is necessarily harmful with no benefit consistent with the benevolent end of biomedical research, and biomedical researchers have a moral obligation to refuse to participate in it. (10)

The proposition that new technological developments in medicine are double-edged is a common platitude in bioethics. At issue really are questions about the proper end of medicine and whether the data of scientific research are ethically neutral. As Leon Kass so aptly states, Medicine, as well as the community which supports it, appears to be perplexed regarding its purpose. It is ironic, but not accidental that medicine's great technical power should arrive in tandem with great confusion about the standards and goals for guiding its use. (11)

Ironically, it is this technology that makes biological weapons much more practical for offensive purposes and makes fearing military use of genetically engineered microorganisms a valid concern, not mere hysteria.

Yet if all biomedical research, military or civilian, truly has this benevolent/malevolent component, this would seem to demand not only refusal to participate in military medical research, but a general refusal to participate in all such research.

Those who would concede the use of medical technology for some purposes must show why use by the military is immoral. Such a position would have to defend the claim that there is no real distinction between offensive and defensive medical research; that is, that all military use of biomedical research is inherently malevolent I think such an argument is flawed and will demonstrate that there is an empirical distinction between offensive and defensive research. Offensive versus Defensive Research

The Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 itself draws an offensive and defensive distinction, allowing defensive research for vaccine purposes. As conceived, the BDRP conforms to this convention and supports the mission of the American military forces to deter war and to defend the American population in time of war. (12) Is this distinction valid?

We need first to clarify the ends of these two types of research. In defensive research, the scientist seeks to develop a vaccine, in offensive research to develop a weapon. In either case, the researcher must isolate and culture a virus and then use animal models to determine if the virus will make the animal sick. To this juncture, the paths to a vaccine and a weapon are identical. However, at this point they diverge empirically.

To obtain a vaccine, only small amounts of an attenuated virus are necessary for testing efficacy, conducting preclinical trials, and safety testing, production, and distribution. Weapons production follows an entirely different pathway. The virus is made more virulent, stabilized, produced in large quantities, and finally a weapon and delivery system must be produced and field tested.

The empirical nature of the research itself justifies a categorical distinction between offensive and defensive biological research. A necessary and sufficient component of offensive research would be both the production of a virulent virus in large amounts and the testing of a delivery system for the biological weapon. However, production of a virulent virus and testing of a delivery system would necessarily be absent from the critical path of a purely defensive experimental research model.

This point is crucial. The United States destroyed all of its biological weapon delivery systems, with United Nations verification, after signing the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. Research to develop and produce a delivery system (a shell canister or other such device to contain the organism) would require specific funding, high-containment laboratories, and numerous bureaucratic approvals that would make concealing the development of an offensive biological weapon virtually impossible.

This empirical research model demonstrates that the mere isolating of a naturally occurring or manufactured virus does not constitute offensive research nor does the virus alone constitute an offensive weapon. Advocates of the nonparticipation argument, however, continue to make this conceptual error.

There is, then, a practical distinction between offensive and defensive biomedical research. To this extent, the extreme "No Participation" argument is factually and logically flawed. This does not mean, however, that biomedical scientists who participate in purely defensive biological research face no moral conflict. It is this issue to which I now turn. Dilemmas in Defensive Research

Do medical researchers who participate in military biological research face a moral dilemma? We have already noted the importance, and moral legitimacy of defensive biological research in providing preventive medical care for American soldiers against naturally occurring endemic diseases. Nonetheless, it is the nature of biological research that seems to pose the strongest argument against participating in military medical research in general. For many, "the possibility of a devastating bioengineered weapon is at least as hideous as the specter of a mushroom cloud." (13) Consequently, we need an argument that morally obligates biomedical researchers to participate in military medical research. If a good argument exists then we have advanced toward eliminating any healing-killing moral conflict.

Such an argument could take the following form: Those associated with the healing professions have a moral obligation to do all they can to promote health, including developing vaccines to promote the health of both civilians and soldiers. Since American soldiers deploy worldwide they require vaccines to promote their health that American civilians do not need. Thus defensive biological research to develop special vaccines for the military is a pragmatic and moral necessity. The medical research community in general, therefore, has a moral obligation to participate in Pentagon-sponsored medical research to develop vaccines and drug therapies to promote the health of American soldiers.

This argument should demonstrate that there exists compelling moral justification for participation. We cannot ignore completely the threat to American soldiers from naturally occurring diseases; nor can we ignore the threat of biological warfare and the United States' need for a clearly formulated policy to deal with this threat. According to William H. Webster, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, at least ten countries are working to produce existing or new types of biological weapons. (14) Both the threat of endemic disease and biological warfare present a strong argument for the existence of the BDRP. Both concerns articulate the mission of the BDRP, namely vaccine development and threat analysis.

The problem of whether the BDRP is morally legitimate revolves around the polarization of two extreme views. On one hand, those who call for the elimination of the BDRP would eliminate the fear of offensive biological weapon development but also put American soldiers at risk. On the other, those favoring the BDRP demonstrate the need for vaccine development but, in the past, have also demonstrated a cavalier attitude toward ethical concerns about secretly exposing American civilians to bacteria particles in vulnerability testing without informed consent. To find the "no participation" alternative logically or morally indefensible is not simultaneously to condone secret testing on civilians and military personnel without following federal regulations for human use in scientific experiments.

If I have established a moral imperative to participate in military research, what then about ensuring its defensive nature? One argument, posited by those critical of military control of the BDRP, suggests shifting responsibility of the BDRP to civilian control. Would this not keep the evil-minded military out of biological research? Would it not remove any possibility of a moral conflict between the benevolent end of medicine and its possible misuse for offensive military purposes? I think not. If, as the opponents of BDRP insist, the fruits of such vaccine research can be used for offensive weapons, the data necessary for weapons development will then be available from the civilian scientific community. There would be no practical way to hide it. The only way to prevent development of a biological weapon would be to halt completely any vaccine research on diseases not endemic to the United States. But this is unacceptable because to do that places the lives of American soldiers in extreme peril.

Nonetheless, removing fear of potential biological weapons development requires some kind of surety or guarantee, the building of trust. This is true whether we are trying to allay the fears of our own scientists or a potential adversary. Unfortunately, the Department of Defense does not have a very good record of trying to cultivate the sense of trust many would need to participate in Pentagon-sponsored medical research. likewise, opponents of such research command media exposure where public statements of doubt regarding the United States' commitment to the Biological Weapons Convention can generate suspicions of a potential enemy.

In the final analysis, the individual researcher must carry much of this burden. Since, as I have shown, there is no ambiguity in distinguishing between vaccine research and research that leads to developing more virulent strains of viruses that have offensive applications, the individual researcher provides some insurance. But external agencies must add even more. Each and every protocol must receive extensive review from an IRB before approval is granted-this, of course, to ensure the protocols seek legitimate, defensive ends. Building projects for high containment laboratories should be reviewed by all responsible governmental agencies and public awareness groups. All scientific data should be released to the biomedical community at large so that the military does not maintain proprietary control over vaccines that would benefit all people-to include potential adversaries. Above all, the military must do everything to act openly and publicly in every aspect of the BDRP. Such full, open, and unclassified disclosure would allow special interest groups the opportunity to "watch dog" the BDRP and would, to some extent, prevent a potential adversary from engaging in a biological arms race. The military should not, as Leonard Cole argues, expect the public merely to, "Trust us!" The military has violated that trust in the past and must work to earn it back.

New biomedical developments will always present problems for our society, particularly if the developments have potential military uses. However, researchers who would deny the military access to such developments need well developed arguments: They cannot base restrictions simply on their own dislike, political bias, or subjective fear of the United States military. I am sympathetic to those biomedical researchers who wish to preserve the benevolent tradition of their profession. Still, the possibility that biomedical advances may be used to produce evil as well as good does not automatically mean such advances ought not to be used when they can serve defensive military purposes. Acknowledgments I gratefully acknowledge the editorial assistance of the staff and associates of The Hastings Center during my tenure as a visiting scholar at the Center. Also thanks to Lieutenant Colonel John Calabro for his suggestions. References (1) Among the various groups opposed to the BDRP are the Committee for Responsible Genetics, which publishes Genewatch, the Foundation on Economic Trends headed by Jeremy Rifkin, and Science for the People, which has a publication of the same name. See Charles Pillar, "Biological Warfare and New Genetic Technologies," for the People 17:3 (1985), 10-14; Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, "Updating the Biological Weapons Ban," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Jan/Feb 1987), 40-46; Jonathan King, "Biology Goes to War," Science for the People 20:1 (1988), 17-20. The Committee for Responsible Genetics is the principle proponent of a petition opposing the use of biology for military purposes. Though not specifically addressed, one can construe that the signers oppose the use of biology for military purposes of a humanitarian as well as a militaristic end. See "Committee on the Military Use of Biological Research Update," Genewatch 2:2 (1985), 3. (3) Drafted by the Committee for Responsible Genetics, the pledge had been signed by 221 individuals through 1987. (4) I single out Professor King because he is a member of the Board of Directors for CRG, a member of the CRG Committee on the Military Use of Biological Research, and the principle author of various articles from which I formulate the "no participation" argument. See "The Threat and Fallacy of a Biological Arms Race," Genewatch 2:2 (1985), 13-16, and "Resisting the Militarization of Biomedical Research," Genewatch 4:45 (1987), 4-5. (5) Christopher R. Gabel, The Lorraine Campaign (Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1985). (6) Spurgeon Neel, Medical Support of the U.S. Army in Vietnam (Washington, DC: Department of the Army, 1973). (7) King, "Biology Goes to War," 17-20. (8) King, "Biology Goes to War," 20. (9) King, "Biology Goes to War," 19. (10) This claim presupposes that military use (or misuse) of biomedical technology is so threatening that such research should be prohibited. The truth of this claim hinges on the integrity of the military to abide by the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972. Certainly the burden of proof is on Icing and colleagues to show justification for prohibiting such research and that the military is not abiding by the convention. (11) Leon R. Kass, "Regarding the End of Medicine and the Pursuit of Health" in A Poynter Reader, David H. Smith, ed. (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985). (12) One might argue that new developments in biomedical research have made the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 ineffective and that loopholes exist regarding rDNA technology. Such arguments only suggest the need for modifying the Convention during its review in 1991, and do not justify a complete prohibition of biomedical research by the military. (13) Mimi Bluestone, "How to Put More Backbone into The Bioweapons Treaty," Business Week, 10 August 1987, 67. (14) Michael R. Gordon, "U.S. Seeks Curbs on Biological Weapons," New York Times, 27 July 1989, A3. Michael E. Frisina is a major, United States Army, and assistant professor of philosophy at the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, NY. The views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this paper are not those officially reflected by the United States Military Academy, the United States Army, or the Department of Defense.
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Title Annotation:includes excerpt from Genewatch's Pledge Against the Military Use of Biological Research
Author:Frisina, Michael E.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:May 1, 1990
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