Laboratory researcher using a light microscope to examine stem cells in a culture jar. At right are a pipette, samples and DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) helix to illustrate genetic editing and research. Photo Credit: SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY via AP Images.
By: Roxanne Heston, Columnist
Biosecurity is the field working to mitigate the risks of natural pandemics, bioterrorism, biological weapons, and dual-use scientific research. In 2012 alone, biosecurity received nearly $6 billion from the U.S. government.[i] Much of this work happens in preparedness and research agencies like the Center for Disease Control and Preparedness and the National Institute of Health, as well as thanks to private funders.[ii] While these groups all do important work, it may not be enough. Recent breakthroughs in the subdomain of synthetic biology – i.e., manually manipulating DNA – have made altering organisms easier and more accessible, and therefore more dangerous.[iii] To avert the worst possible outcomes, the national security community should further aid existing public health agencies and nonprofits leveraging their unique capabilities to help detect, diagnose, and counter biosecurity threats.
History makes abundantly clear the potential natural pandemics have to cause widespread harm. The Spanish flu was the most devastating outbreak in human history, killing 50-100 million people — more than died in all of World War I.[iv] The response to natural pandemics has greatly improved in the century since that outbreak, but such advances are a double-edged sword. Synthetic biology facilitates generating more robust crops, inexpensive medicines, and targeted therapies for a host of ailments, but it also creates new territories of concerns.[v] Experts in this field worry, for instance, that terrorists could use DNA synthesis to recreate viruses such as smallpox.[vi]
Private researchers have already successfully generated a close relative of smallpox: a synthetic version of horsepox. [vii] Ryan Noyce and his colleagues, the team responsible for the public finding, simply aimed to further cancer treatment research. Nonetheless, a malicious actor could learn from Noyce’s breakthrough and cause an artificial smallpox outbreak.[viii]
Just how much devastation could synthetic biology cause? As a lower bound, the Spanish flu outbreak killed 3-5% of all people alive at that time. Some researchers believe a non-negligible probability exists of a globally catastrophic biological event, an outbreak killing 10% or more of the world’s population, occurring in the coming century.[ix] Not only would such a loss be immediately devastating, but it would likely cause substantial social and economic instability, too. Although this risk may seem remote today, salient issues like climate change and weapons of mass destruction seemed similarly remote a century ago.[x]
One program focusing on global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs) is the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security (CHS). This center has been central to legitimizing this field of study, by, amongst other things, generating a working definition of the problem.[xi] Last fall, it produced a report articulating the technologies needed to address GCBRs. It discusses interventions at each stage of a pandemic’s development, from initial detection and awareness when a disease first starts spreading to medical care and surge capacity once it has spread.
The report concludes, intuitively, that “these technologies will require significant dedicated effort and investment.”[xii] The U.S. government already invests significant amounts of money in biosecurity. However, less than 10% of this spending goes to programs with that focus exclusively, the rest going to projects that prioritize science research or disaster preparation broadly.[xiii] CHS’s director claims extreme risks receive limited attention because “there is not a called-out responsibility in government at this point for preparing for extraordinarily large events.”[xiv]
However, large events do fall within the scope and long-term thinking of the U.S. national security community. Today, defense and intelligence agencies tackle areas the CHS report emphasizes. For instance, DARPA’s PREPARE program generates better distributed medical countermeasure manufacturing, the third category of the CHS paradigm.[xv] Similarly, addressing category 1: disease detection, IARPA’s Fun GCAT program promotes screening nucleic acid sequences to prevent the creation of biological threats.[xvi]
These are great first steps but, given the potential cost and relative inattention this subset of biological risks receives, the U.S. government should bolster work that reduces the likelihood and severity of potential outbreaks.[xvii] Research and funding agencies should address catastrophic biological threats at all stages, by, for instance, engineering vaccines that spread themselves through populations. Drones and satellites could autonomously conduct environmental surveillance to detect threats. Drones could also deliver clinical supplies during an outbreak to difficult-to-access areas.[xviii] Beyond research, regulations could further leverage export controls to hinder the spread of dangerous information or strains. Institutional biosafety committees and review boards could augment such work.[xix] Similarly, the military should review its previous responses, such as to the recent Ebola epidemic, and augment its ability to manage future pathogens.
Regardless of the projects in which the national security community invests, the country, and the world, will benefit in the long term if the U.S. invests now in countering emerging biological threats.
[i] “Biosecurity,” Open Philanthropy Project (blog), January 2014, https://www.openphilanthropy.org/research/cause-reports/biosecurity.
[iii] Nick Beckstead et al., “Unprecedented Technological Risks” (University of Oxford, September 2014), http://globalprioritiesproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Unprecedented-Technological-Risks.pdf.
[iv] Duda, “Biorisk Reduction.”
[v] Ahmad Khalil and James Collins, “Synthetic Biology: Applications Come to Age,” HHS Public Access, November 1, 2010, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2896386/.
[vi] Emily Singer, “The Dangers of Synthetic Biology,” MIT Technology Review (blog), May 30, 2006, https://www.technologyreview.com/s/405882/the-dangers-of-synthetic-biology/.
[vii] Gregory Lewis, “Horsepox Synthesis: A Case of the Unilateralist’s Curse?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (blog), February 19, 2018, https://thebulletin.org/2018/02/horsepox-synthesis-a-case-of-the-unilateralists-curse/.
[x] Angela Kane, “Global Catastrophic Risks 2018” (Global Challenges Foundation, n.d.), https://api.globalchallenges.org/static/files/GCF-Annual-report-2018.pdf.
[xi] Monica Schoch-Spana and et al., “Global Catastrophic Biological Risks: Toward a Working Definition,” Health Security 15, no. 4 (August 1, 2017), https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/full/10.1089/hs.2017.0038.
[xii] Crystal Watson et al., “Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks” (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health Center for Health Security, 2018), http://www.centerforhealthsecurity.org/our-work/pubs_archive/pubs-pdfs/2018/181009-gcbr-tech-report.pdf.
[xiii] Duda, “Biorisk Reduction.”
[xiv] Robert Wiblin and Keiran Harris, “The Careers and Policies That Can Prevent Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, According to World-Leading Health Security Expert Dr Inglesby,” 80,000 Hours (blog), April 18, 2018, https://80000hours.org/podcast/episodes/tom-inglesby-health-security/.
[xv] Renee Wegrzyn, “PReemptive Expression of Protective Alleles and Response Elements (PREPARE),” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (blog), n.d., https://www.darpa.mil/program/preemptive-expression-of-protective-alleles-and-response-elements.
[xvi] Chris Pope, “Functional Genomic and Computational Assessment of Threats (Fun GCAT),” Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (blog), n.d., https://www.iarpa.gov/index.php/research-programs/fun-gcat.
[xvii] Duda, “Biorisk Reduction.”
[xviii] Watson et al., “Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks.”
[xix] Lewis, “Horsepox Synthesis: A Case of the Unilateralist’s Curse?”