In our lifetimes, biotechnology has improved the quality of human life in ways that earlier generations could barely have imagined. And biotech startups today are producing waves of innovation that impact not only medicine and agriculture, but also fields as seemingly non-biological as computing and industrial chemistry.
As biotechnology becomes more pervasive and powerful, what new risks will it create, and how can we mitigate them? In other words, how can biology solve today’s biggest challenges without creating new ones?
Preventing disasters before they become headlines
“Biotechnology is evolving quickly, and on many fronts,” says Megan Palmer, a Senior Research Scholar at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation. She believes we need to be pragmatic about the potential risks. “We should try to understand trends but also expect uncertainty about how and where risks may emerge,” she says. “We also need to be mindful of our blind-spots.”
Biosafety and biosecurity have traditionally focused on a relatively small set of disease-causing agents. (Think of The Guardian’s supposed mail-ordering of the smallpox virus in 2006.) “Formulating policies only after a headline-grabbing technology advance or incident can lead to a narrow, reactive framing,” Palmer says. She stresses that biosecurity policies demand constant, proactive updating based on real-world developments in laboratories and industries around the world. This requires a shared sense of responsibility by all participants in the field.
Even with effective oversight and safety protocols in place, new threats could still emerge. For example, will biotech’s most powerful tools be weaponized?
Michael Montague, Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, argues that the best defense against bioweapons begins by recognizing that warfare has been constant throughout history, while the study of biology is a relatively recent development.
“Humans are not especially good at biology, but we are very good at warfare,” he says.
By identifying potential adversaries and understanding their objectives, we can winnow the list of their possible targets and weapons. Montague believes that while most nations would not likely pursue a biological weapon, if they did, they would probably do so for the same reasons that nations have historically pursued weapons of mass destruction, such as for deterrence. It is conceivable that, with barriers to bioengineering dropping, small nations previously unable to achieve such strategic deterrence capability would view bioweapons as a more attainable goal than nuclear weapons.
But inflicting mass casualties on human populations via bioweapons is extraordinarily difficult. The delivery methods are technically challenging, Montague says, and even if a pathogen were successfully introduced into the population, it could potentially be stopped in its tracks by diligent surveillance. For example, in 2003 when the SARS outbreak struck, more than 8,000 people worldwide were infected, 774 fatally. But in the U.S. only eight people showed laboratory evidence of infection, and none died. Though the virus spread around the globe “at the speed of a jumbo jet,” it never developed into a global pandemic, due at least in part to surveillance and public health countermeasures. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for instance, deployed a team of 800 medical experts to identify and contain outbreaks.
Biosecurity = economic security
With such public health capabilities already in place, large nations might also focus on bioweapons with the potential to wreak economic havoc. In the same way that cyberattacks enter the digital world as anonymous snippets of computer code, these bioweapons might simply appear unannounced in an industrial process, for example. Such threats are making attribution an increasingly important specialization within the field of biosecurity. For instance, recent research by Alec Nielsen and Christopher Voigt at MIT shows that, by using deep learning algorithms, the lab-of-origin of engineered DNA can be narrowed down substantially.
As biology is incorporated into more and more sectors of the economy, the list of potential threats will continue to grow. For Rob Carlson of Bioeconomy Capital, this points to an inescapable conclusion: biosecurity is now essential for economic security. Moreover, biotechnology and biomanufacturing require the same sort of coordinated policies that shepherded the growth of the electronics and aerospace industries.
Carlson notes that biotech conservatively accounts for two percent of U.S. GDP, greater than the mining industry. Yet the U.S. government does not measure or track its contribution to the economy. Critical parts of the economy undoubtedly depend on biologically manufactured products, and these could constitute important links in the supply chain of the U.S. government, including for national defense. Therefore we do not understand the scope of our exposure to risks such as sabotage or theft of intellectual property. Moreover, we have no objective way to measure our progress and capabilities relative to other nations when it comes to the bioeconomy. “So,” says Carlson, “we cannot tell if we are winning or losing.”
A growing number of countries see biotechnology and biomanufacturing as a less capital-intensive version of the Asian Tigers’ industrial formula for economic development. China, in particular, has made clear its intention to become a dominant global power through the development of its bioeconomy. And part of its strategy has been to import knowledge and technology from abroad. Consequently, intellectual property protection and foreign investment in U.S. industries like synthetic biology, nanobiology, genetic engineering, and biomaterials are of particular concern.
While Carlson sees restrictions on foreign investment in biotech as a necessity, particularly when control of technologies developed using taxpayer funds is at risk, he feels the key to biosecurity is to generate even more domestic innovation. And today innovation is driven by the democratization of technical capability. He suggests that the U.S. government should develop a network of community laboratories to provide access to infrastructure, increase communication between innovators, and facilitate engagement on topics related to national security and national technology development goals.
With the right infrastructure and incentives, plus pragmatic oversight, the next generation of biotechnology promises to deliver unprecedented benefits without unduly increasing risk. The list of potential dangers is lengthy, and it will continue to evolve. But by fostering a culture of shared responsibility, and strengthening collaboration between policymakers and innovators, we can ensure that the security framework for biotechnology evolves in step with the technology itself.
Special thanks to John Murray for additional research and reporting in this post. Mr. Murray is a synthetic biology investor and consultant, organizer of the meetup group Life Sciences NYC, and former Senior Hedge Fund Manager at Goldman Sachs and high-energy physicist at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
Originally published on Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/johncumbers/2019/07/28/biosecurity-is-economic-security/1