10-2: On Biotechnology and Biosecurity

In their chapter “Biotechnology and biosecurity,” Ali Nouri and Christopher Chyba explain the problems currently facing the world’s biotechnology sector. They assert that regulating biotechnology in the future will be incredibly challenging for two reasons: one, the large gap between the pace of advances in biology and the pace of multinational regulatory negotiation and two, the difficulties involved in large-scale monitoring and inspections.

While the recent world has seen relatively few acts of bioterrorism, there are many reasons to fear what is very possible. Nouri and Chyba outline the benefits of biotechnology, from a hostile’s perspective, compared to other weapons technologies; namely, biotechnology is getting exponentially cheaper and faster while also being incredibly difficult to monitor (in comparison to nuclear and chemical weapons). Additionally, biotechnology seems to have less of a stigma than other types of weapons. It is unlikely that in the future any government or multi-governmental organization would be willing to sacrifice biotechnology’s vast contributions to worldwide health for the sake of national security. And unlike nuclear weapons, there is no real “alternative” to biotechnology. It is an unfortunate truth that in both nuclear and biotechnology lies two capabilities: ones that are beneficial—energy and revolutions in modern medicine—and ones that harm human life. Additionally, Nouri and Chyba allege that even if one forgets the humanitarian argument against restricting biotechnology, “restricting access to biotechnology could undermine desired security objectives by encouraging secrecy and impeding collaborative exchanges among different laboratories” (457).

Nouri and Chyba then offer possible mechanisms to keep the world safe. First, they offer defensive strategies aimed at keeping potentially dangerous bioweapons out of malicious hands. These focus mostly on an oversight of biological research. Secondly, they outline strategies to be implemented in the event of a biological disaster, including improved surveillance and detection, coordination and communication between countries, the mobilization of the public health sector, and enhanced research, vaccines, and drug development. The article ends on an optimistic note, with the authors positing that the political willpower to implement preventative and defensive measures will be able to cause a “more biologically secure future” (475). I found their conclusion less than assuring, simply because of the unpredictability of this kind of catastrophic biological event. They mention that it is possible to use the epidemics of the past (Spanish influenza, smallpox, etc.) in order to model what could possibly happen today in the case of a devastating outbreak. They also mention the incredible difficulty involved in forecasting the consequences of a bioweapon due to factors such as wind speed, environmental fluctuations, and political decisions. I would argue that the increased globalization of the last century has created a world so complex that complete anarchy is a real fear in the case of a natural or hostile biological attack. In the game we were assigned to play for our next problem set (Plague, Inc.), if you kill enough people in a country, that country’s government completely shuts down. This is another important difference between nuclear and biological weapons: once a nuclear weapon has been detonated, its damage is, even considering fallout, relatively contained. In contrast, a disease agent, once released, could have a mind of its own and spread uncontrollably throughout our entire incredibly interconnected world.

I enjoyed Contagion because I think it did a good job of portraying the human emotion during a crisis. I completely understand why Feng kidnaps the WHO worker portrayed by Marion Cotillard, why Dr. Cheever warns his girlfriend to leave Chicago before the quarantine, and why he then gives the vaccine to the janitor’s son. I understand because I am human and I know the desire to help and protect the people you love, even if it means acting in a questionable or dishonest manner. In a crisis, the human sense of morality is hard to predict.

I would like to end with a moderately ominous quote from Contagion. In response to a question from a member of the Department of Homeland Security regarding if it’s possible that somebody has created a biological weapon, Dr. Ellis Cheever says, “Someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are doing that.” (23:35) — Alexa