10-1: Reaping the Benefits and Mitigating the Risks of Biotechnology

The field of biotechnology is expanding at an exponential rate. The challenge is figuring out how to harness the benefits of biotech, which can lead to advances in medicine, agriculture, and genetics, and also protect against the associated risks; bio weapons programs, non-actor acquisition of a virus genome, or industrial accidents. Chyba explains that there are two aspects of the problem; first, that the rapid development of biotechnology has outpaced the development of international treaties, and second, that the accessibility of biotechnologies means that a monitoring system would have to be able to oversee both countries as well as small groups and individuals.

Chyba and Nouri note that we have not seen a high number of non-state actors pursuing bio weapons technology. Most of the attacks that have occurred have been unsuccessful. The 2001 U.S. Anthrax scare, the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s attempt to obtain Bacillus anthracis, and an Oregon cult’s use of Salmonella typhimurium, had minimal fatalities and were localized attacks. Given the affordability and relative easy access to biological weapons, compared with nuclear weapons, why do you believe that we have not seen large scale biotech attacks by non-state actors? Are conventional weapons more appealing or do non-state actors not yet have the technical expertise to obtain and effectively disperse a biological agent? What might encourage a non-state actor’s pursuit of biotech weapons, what might constrain it? How might we deincentivize the pursuit of biological weapons?

Another point that Chyba and Nouri touch on is whether or not scientific research reports should be censored. They give the example of several Venter Institute scientists who developed a mechanism to transplant synthesized genomes. The study, while a piece of groundbreaking research, has broader implications and could serve as a model for terrorists to create certain pathogens. Chyba explains that it is unlikely that non-state actors will develop a pathogen from scratch, and that instead they are likely to use methods reported in academic journals as launching platforms. Overseeing academic literature to prevent publication of possible dual-use bio technologies could help to reduce the risks associated with biotech research. However, as Chyba and Nouri note, efforts to manage and monitor biotech research could ‘chill’ “scientific communication” which in turn could slow progress in key fields like medicine. In my opinion, high levels of scientific cooperation could be maintained even with a robust oversight process. Professionals with security clearances have routes outside of academic journals to communicate and collaborate. Do you think ‘censoring’ bio tech research is something the government should be engaged in?

Finally, Chyba and Nouri suggest that biotech weapon non-proliferation is completely different from nuclear non-proliferation which focuses on nation states. While, it seems to be true that the threat from bio technology comes from individuals and not nation states, there may still be some lessons we can learn from the construction of international treaties on nuclear nonproliferation, which can inform regulation of biotechnologies. Today, countries monitor the transportation of fissile material and dual use technologies. Are there certain mechanisms that have been developed to track and prevent nuclear proliferation that could be applied to prevention of dual use biotech proliferation? — Kimberly

3 thoughts on “10-1: Reaping the Benefits and Mitigating the Risks of Biotechnology

  1. Dual use is definitely one of the most complicating factors in the debate over whether or not to ban/censor research in biotechnology. Perhaps even more frustratingly than with nuclear weapons, in which the scientific process for weaponization is well-known and enrichment levels at least can be verified with a degree of certainty if inspectors are given enough access, whereas with research into biotechnology, even the researchers may not be aware of the impacts their research has. A ban on publication (which would have a chilling effect on research) could, therefore, limit legitimate research by including too much in the category of research that cannot be published. In Contagion, we did see that top researchers were able to communicate about their research results with one another; one unauthorized researcher outside the CDC sent his results to the CDC and helped make progress toward finding the vaccine. So collaboration is still possible with these types of government limits on research and publication, but likely more difficult. I would also agree with Chyba and Nouri’s observation that bio-weapon non-proliferation is different (and possibly more difficult) than nuclear non-proliferation, especially since people (and other organisms) are often complicit in the proliferation itself.

  2. I think that one of the most important points in our discussion of biosecurity is the distinction between a biological weapon and an epidemic of natural origins. While the response to both a biological weapon attack and a natural epidemic may be very similar, I believe that it is important to make the distinction between these two scenarios when talking about biosecurity because of the idea that biological weapons will most likely not be developed from scratch. There are significantly more chances for the emergence of an extremely deadly disease through natural causes due to evolution, mutation, and natural selection. However, in the lab, with our incomplete understanding of many of these pathogens, it would be rather difficult to produce a deadly disease entirely from scratch. Additionally, all of our knowledge about what makes a certain pathogen so deadly comes from an analysis of previous cases of deadly diseases such as smallpox and the 1918 influenza. The bottom line is that a biological weapon would most likely not be a completely new pathogen, but rather variations or even just recreations of previously described pathogens. Therefore, the policies that we create in regards to biosecurity should reflect this fact. On one hand, I wholeheartedly agree that excessive censoring of biological research could have an extremely detrimental effect on the advancement of biotechnology. However, at the same time, I think that it would be possible to identify key components of research related to potentially weaponizable pathogens and censor only these components. For example, in the case of the 1918 influenza, the most important piece of knowledge is the its sequence. While it is beneficial to the scientific community to study this sequence to determine what makes this flu so deadly, it is not necessary for this sequence to be publicly available. Instead, this sequence should only be available to specific research labs that have special access. Papers detailing scientific breakthroughs about the 1918 influenza should not be completely censored as these breakthroughs may be beneficial to the entire scientific community, but these papers should be screened to make sure that they do not contain the information sufficient to allow someone else to reconstruct this flu.

  3. This is indeed a tricky tradeoff; I am looking forward to your mini presentation (and the discussion) tomorrow.

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