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