Biosecurity: Can We Protect Ourselves?

I would like to bring up one of the readings that was not talked about last week, “Biotechnology and Biosecurity.” Although we began to talk about ways of censoring biotechnology and potentially halting some research, I think the topic of biosecurity is one worth revisiting. In a world that is quickly developing new technologies and new ways to manipulate biologics, how can we protect ourselves?

In this reading, the authors start out by noting that the world of biotechnology is developing as fast, if not faster than the computing world. The computing world gets a lot more recognition for its advances, and a lot of people in the general population fail to realize that biotechnology is developing at the same rate. One question I have for you all is: do you think there is a dearth of knowledge about biotechnology and its potential benefits/threats in the general population?

The authors point out 2 major challenges to regulating biotechnology development: 1. Biotechnology develops at a much faster rate than the rate at which any treaty would be able to be negotiated and 2. It is difficult to impose inspections on a technology that is getting smaller and smaller. Unlike the nuclear weapons that we discussed earlier in the course, biotechnology and bioweapons can be much smaller, and sometimes can leave no trace. Another major threat of biotechnology is that the technology is becoming such that anyone can replicate it, thus making it an increasingly prevalent threat. Bioweapons can be made much more cheaply and with much less technical expertise than can other weapons.

The authors note several different ways that we can address biotechnology risks, but each plan has its own challenges. (1) The authors suggest censoring the publication of biotechnology research (we talked about this on last week’s blog, so I will not go into detail). (2) Another method calls for international negotiations about restrictions that can be placed on biotechnology. However, the current international climate makes this a very unlikely possibility. (3) Another possible control mechanism relies on the scientists to self-censor their work. However, this puts undue pressure on the scientists and does not guarantee that any sort of regulation will take place and would likely lead to the stifling of knowledge flow in the scientific community. (4) Proper disease control is reliant on countries sharing knowledge and disease samples with one another. (5) We must work on disease detection and disease response in order to prepare ourselves for the possibility of bioterrorism.

The challenges to controlling bioterrorism are much greater than the challenges to controlling nuclear terrorism, as nuclear weapons are more difficult to make and are easier to regulate. However, bioterrorism is as prevalent of a threat, and policy makers are increasingly looking for ways to deal with this problem.

Some final questions I would like to ask are:

  1. Do you think any one of these strategies is better than the others?
  2. Is a combination of strategies more likely to be effective?
  3. Will none of these strategies work? Are we fighting a losing battle?
  4. Do you have any ideas for how to go about controlling bioterrorism or the spread of potentially harmful biotechnology?
  5. Do you think that bioterrorism can cause “mutually assured destruction,” as is the case with nuclear warfare?


23 thoughts on “Biosecurity: Can We Protect Ourselves?

  1. In addition to the strategies you mention above, the authors briefly suggest that biotechnology companies implement a screening process. For instance, when a researcher need a small strand of DNA synthesized (oligo) or even sequenced to check for mutations, they send their request off to biotechnology companies. The authors suggest that the companies install a software that cross checks the requested sequence against the database of “select agents” to make sure that they are not synthesizing one of these agents. (There are other suggestions within the biology community to take this screening one step further by not only screening the sequence but the client as well.)

    Their suggestion of a screening process implies a larger strategy for biosecurity which is to have a scientific “separation of powers”. In the case of the screening of the desired sequence, you have the researchers with the idea for the experiment versus the companies with a technological process that is an essential aspect of the experiment. In this manner, there is a certain amount of accountability between the two institutions.

    This idea does not address what happens when non-state actors are involved, nor does it address the effects of potentially slowing down health-related research, but it is a start.

  2. I would like to address the question of whether any of these
    strategies will actually work. An important question arises when thinking about biotechnology and bio security—whether or not we will be able to fully benefit from advancing technological age, while not simultaneously fearing that this technology gets into the wrong hands. Is it really fair to stifle research out of fear that the information could be misused? Does this represent a smart move, or simply force us to live in a world of fear? And how do we differentiate between who can and who cannot continue certain research (for example, clearance levels)?

    In addition, I agree that it is also very important to share knowledge of different diseases and control mechanisms with other countries. I don’t see this information sharing as very realistic, however, due to the lack of trust among many countries. If we are hesitant to let our own researchers work, we are certainly not going to share what information we have with someone else. Finally, the difficulty about preparing to respond to a disease is that we must first know what the disease is that we are trying to prevent, putting us at a disadvantage against any terrorist group that knows the makeup of the bioweapon. The only way to have an idea about the types of weapons is to allow the research to continue.

    If any sort of bioterrorism control is going to occur, it is going to require a combination of all of these strategies, and an increased level of trust among the global community.

  3. In your final question section, I would like to focus on the last one, the question on whether bioterrorism can cause mutually assured destruction. I think that it can, but not in the way that nuclear warfare would. In the case of nuclear warfare, one can track the missiles to the country of origin and return fire with one’s own missiles. However, bioterrorism, assuming a state sponsor behind the attack, is inherently underhanded and sneaky and much harder to track the attack back to its source. But this also comes with a danger for the attacker. As we notice when we all played Plague Inc, a disease could spread rapidly if conditions are met and infect the whole world if really lucky. Thus this bioterrorism attack would also come with a risk of the disease traveling back to native shores and taking out the origin country. Admittedly, nations with good procedures for such cases could contain the disease and work out its origin and then return the favor. Although, this whole scenario assumes that the sponsor behind the attack was a nation rather than an extremist group. If it was an independent extremist group responsible for the attack, then mutually assured destruction cannot be applied just as it would not be able to be applied if those same extremist groups were able to get a hold of nuclear weapons. This reason is the same reason behind why the appropriate retaliatory response to the 9/11 attacks was to invade and investigate countries in the Middle East instead of bombing the whole country. Also, I believe that due to the inherent risk of return infection and possible retaliation that this path is not viable for nations to use as an initial strike, the author’s insistence on the increasing ease of biotechnology makes me fear for the independent extremist group angle more than the national angle.

  4. In thinking about whether or not any of the strategies proposed by Nouri and Chyba are effective in the fight against bioterrorism and biowarfare, we must consider that the first three strategies are contingent upon the international community’s resolve in limiting biotechnology and perhaps more importantly, the scientific community’s willingness to censor what is considered universally important medical knowledge. Both of these conditions are not easily fulfilled, as biotechnology reaps just as many benefits as it does risks and it is honestly difficult to clearly delineate the point at which biotechnology becomes “most dangerous”. Furthermore, it is even more difficult to restrict certain lines of research to particular individuals, as how we are supposed to identify the individuals, states, or non-state actors who will use biotechnology for productive research in the life sciences versus those who will use biotechnology to endanger the lives of humanity? Likewise, to expect that the scientific community will simply agree to censor themselves and limit the flow of information is against the very principle of science. Part of the difficulty in addressing biotechnology risks is the very information that helps technological advancement and the discovery of more disease cures is the same information that is necessary for bioterrorism.

    The latter two of the five strategies seem more feasible and realistic, as they encourage attempts to catch up and keep up with the pace of biotechnology and information sharing. Countries sharing disease samples and knowledge regarding various pathogens is incredibly valuable and as long as countries agree to a basic foundational understanding that they do not want any outbreak of a virus to occur without adequate preventative measures, I think it is actually quite easy to get countries on the same page regarding the fate of humanity (as infectious diseases cannot necessarily be contained within the borders of one country). Finally, I believe the last strategy is the most important and the one we should focus the majority of our energy on. The faster we can detect a disease, no matter how much we know about it in advance or how much effort we have put into preventing biotechnology and information getting into the hands of the wrong people, the more effective we can be at eradicating the disease before it spreads. Likewise, timely and effective disease responses can dramatically decrease the detrimental consequences of bioterrorism.

    As Nouri and Chyba reiterate, “none of these approaches is exclusive” (460), and it is indeed important that we pursue all strategies concurrently. However it is useful to consider and identify which strategies are comparatively more effective and realistic so that we allocate our time and resources appropriately.

  5. I hope this is not too off-base, but I recently finished a game called Deus Ex (the most recent one) which is set in a dystopian future where unregulated private biotech firms develop human “augmentations,” which end up creating serious issues involving the corporations and national governments. Aside from shooting bad guys and solving puzzles, the player has to make some difficult moral choices between balancing scientific progress and ethical responsibility and accountability, and in that regard I think the writers did a really good job of examining some serious issues and presenting different viewpoints. Although the focus isn’t on disease, I still think the debate over scientific regulation and self-control is relevant to this discussion. The main idea behind the game is that corporations develop ways to bond mechanical and cybernetic implants with human tissue, creating “augmentations” that range from stronger limbs to chips embedded in your brain which improve sensory awareness, memory, and learning. As the player, the game begins with you suffering massive fatal injuries before you are saved by these augmentations, which end up replacing most of your body and essentially give you superhuman powers.

    These “augs” become extremely controversial because the corporations that developed them worked in secret and with virtually no regulation, with funding from government military contracts. The extreme costs of these augs essentially limit them to corporations, governments, and extremely wealthy individuals. For various moral, ethical, and practical reasons, a portion of the public begin to oppose these new developments and form a group to petition the UN to impose oversight on these multinational firms.

    Obviously, in the story things tend to be exaggerated in order to make things entertaining, and there are a lot of conspiracy theories thrown in the mix, but nevertheless I think the points they raise are pretty interesting and help explain why all of the regulatory plans listed in the reading are difficult to implement. In the story, we see what is basically the worst case scenario, where a combination of factors prevent pretty much any of the regulatory plans outlined in the readings from being implemented, and as a result the world is thrown into chaos.

    The two largest biotech firms are based in the USA and China, the two superpowers in the year 2020, and both are heavily funded by their respective governments and are essentially in an escalating arms race. Naturally, this competition and the sensitive nature of the research being conducted (with its potential military applications) deter either the firms or the governments from publishing their most important findings. The rivalry between the two superpowers also makes it even more difficult for international agreements, and instead we see a race to develop increasingly complex and dangerous biological weapons. Essentially, the very close ties between these powerful corporations and governments create complex networks of special interests that override moral concerns. The game also points out flaws in asking scientists to monitor themselves. Although most of the individual researchers you interact with seem ethical and believe that the work they do will save lives and improve humanity, most of them are working in very small teams and on a very specific task or aspect of the project, and have no idea about the ultimate goals of their superiors and what their research will be used for. Naturally, in the game the evil corporate leaders go all the way and end up creating mutated cyborgs, but the underlying point is that even without the exaggeration, in an enormous multinational firm the most important ethical decisions may still end up in the hands of only a few top executives (those who fully understand the big picture) and that makes it much more difficult to impose accountability. All in all, a lot of things have to go extremely wrong for these dystopian scenarios to arise, but the flaws they indicate–overlapping science with national security, and not being able to hold multinational corporations accountable–are pretty important considerations.

  6. I don’t think mutually assured destruction applies to bioterrorism, at least in the way which it is defined for nuclear weapons. MAD is based on deterrence theory, which dissuades the use of weapons by one side because of the threat and destruction they will face if/when the other side retaliates. This led the US and USSR to an arms race during the Cold War, as each side tried to keep up with the other’s nuclear weapon capacity.

    With bioterrorism, as pqde says, the attacking nation faces a threat from its own attack. Even if the disease is destructive in the target country, it could very well be transmitted back to the attacking country, especially if the two countries are in close proximity. In this case, mutually assured destruction of the two nations could apply, but it would be due to the attacking nation only (there’d be no need for a “second-strike”). The attacking nation also faces the risk of attacking a lot of nations it didn’t intend to (i.e. close allies), which serves as another form of deterrence.

    Whether the introduced pathogen is successful in the target nation or not, it could be difficult (i.e. take a lot of time and resources) for that country to determine how it was introduced or who introduced it. Thus, it could be months before the target nation knows who it should retaliate against (whether biologically or through some other means), and this potential lengthy time scale is not conducive to deterrence. Additionally, if the attacker is an independent group rather than a nation, it is hard for the target nation to retaliate specifically against that group. Thus, the group might not feel much deterrence from a nation because there is a limited chance of an effective retaliation.

  7. I’d like to specifically address censorship (whether self-censorship or government censorship) and then explain how I feel biotechnology fits into the larger discussion of bioweapons. I do not believe that censoring biotechnology research is a productive way of limiting the danger of bioweapons, and in fact I think it could increase the danger. Releasing biological research (which rarely is a direct set of instructions for a bioweapon) contributes to bioweapons in that people can use the information from the research to synthesize a harmful agent. In the same way, however, the same biotechnological research can allow those with access to it (a much larger number if it’s published) to synthesize a counteragent. It is true that a terrorist may not be as likely to procure a bioweapon if the research is not published, but it seems far more likely that biomedical and biotechnological research that is published will go to positive medical applications than deleterious ones motivated by terrorism. If we censor this research for fear of an unlikely attack, then we run the much more likely risk of leaving many very positive medical compounds undeveloped.

    The world of biotechnology is not one of potential weapons. We can fairly easily synthesize toxins from already known lethal agents, but to develop a new biomedical compound requires billions of dollars of investment, expertise, and equipment. Very few organizations have these resources who are not putting them towards ends unrelated to bioweapons. Governments can develop such weapons because they have access to money, resources, and scientists on a huge scale. Companies cannot provide such weapons to anyone other than a government, because to meet a bottom line, they must produce productive and marketable compounds that are not illegal under the law.

    Therefore, I think that the risk of a non-state terrorist group synthesizing a novel bioweapon is less likely than the risks of other terror attacks, in part because given the choice between a known, easy technology, and a difficult one, terrorists are likely to choose the simpler course of action. I also believe that governments are more willing to consider the “mutually assured destruction” potential of a bioweapon than a terror group, because they are motivated by the longterm survivability and well-being of their states. Therefore, no group is particularly likely to use a bioweapon. It would be beneficial to codify such a decision in a treaty, however, and it seems probable that many nations could be persuaded to agree to such a treaty. Enforcement would not be as difficult as it sounds, because it is hard to produce such a weapon without the infrastructure, much of which could be tracked by the international community.

    In short, I think that bioterrorism is difficult to precipitate, unlikely, and likely to be a subject of agreement on an international stage.

  8. I agree with your point that if we censor biotechnology research to prevent the risks of bioterrorism, then we face the risk of leaving many positive medical compounds undeveloped.

    I think this dilemma speaks to a distinct problem with biotechnology. A major challenge in addressing bioterrorism risks is because the same research that promotes the discovery of more medical cures is the knowledge that can be easily misused or abused for bioterrorism. In comparison, the dividing line between general physics and physics required for weapons research is arguably much clearer.

    Among the five strategies proposed by the authors, I want to focus on the last two methods. Indeed,
    for proper disease control, international cooperation and coordination is critical. Especially in the globalized, integrated economy, bioterrorism risks are not isolated to one specific country. Therefore, for mutual benefits, countries should have an incentive in sharing knowledge and disease samples with one another. However, as with the climate change issue, global governance is the problem. Because different countries
    would perceive the threat of bioterrorism with different intensities, it would be difficult to exactly align the interests of many different countries into a satisfactory multilateral agreement for such exchanges. Therefore, it would be more realistic to promote information sharing on bilateral basis as situation demands.

    As for the last strategy, authors make an important point that it is critical to invest resources for disease detection as well as disease response. While it is important to develop reactive measures, it is equally important to invest money into proactive research to prevent those disasters from happening in the first place. To find this balance, I believe a closer reflection on this meta-strategy is necessary. For example, Future of Humanity, a research organization in Oxford that brings together leading scientists to study the “big-picture” questions in global catastrophic risks, focuses on identifying and prioritizing
    different strategies to reduce the risk of bioterrorism. As such, biosecurity research
    should be conducted at many different levels.

  9. I agree with @joemargolies:disqus’s point that “the risk of a non-state terrorist group synthesizing a novel bioweapon is less likely than the risks of other terror attacks.” In fact, I think that this statement extends to all bioweapons, not only novel bioweapons. One only has to look to the Center for New American Security’s report on Aum Shinrikyo for a case study on the practical implementation and creation of bioweapons by non-state actors. The cult’s biological weapons program failed due to various factors, including the complexity of developing and maintaining bioweapons and the trade-off between secrecy and skilled developers (the bioweapons program was only known by certain members of the leadership, but this also meant that only a small group of people with limited skill sets and scientific expertise knew about the program and guided it), and the cult pursued chemical weapons instead, with a successful sarin attack in the Tokyo subway system. This case study leads me to believe that, although, in class, we discussed the inefficacy of chemical weapons due to easily implementable protective measures (i.e. gas masks), bioweapons may actually be “less effective,” if we focus on the factors of research and development–the initial investment and expertise necessary to create them, as well as ensure that they carry out their intended effects once released into the environment. Therefore, chemical weapons, with the element of surprise, may actually be more deadly and easily implementable on a practical level.

  10. I question if international cooperation to place restrictions on biotechnology would even be productive or relevant in preventing bioterrorism. The lure of bioterrorism at least in the 21st century lies in its lack of transparency and traceability and that, for this reason, non-state actors (and maybe even state actors) would most likely be able to escape unnoticed (i.e.discreetly contaminating water supply, food processors, etc) if they somehow succeeded in committing bioterrorism against a target population. That said, I do not know how effective some perfunctory negotiation measures by official state actors would be in suppressing the inherent appeal of “silent” terrorist methods such as bioterrorism to non-state actors. We should recognize that bioterrorism, if it occurs at all, will certainly not be so detectable as might a missile being fired off a launchpad, but rather occur on a much more decentralized, denationalized level not easily traced. In a way, the fight against bioterrorism is a fight against the “unknown”–that somebody dropped something into someone’s water supply somewhere. In other words, we are looking at a state vs. non-state dynamic and, accordingly, we should do everything in our ability to equip and inform the public “state” (through widely disseminated public research, etc.) to develop sufficient biosurveillance technology and first-response equipment against this “unknown.” The fight against bioterrorism, however, could open a whole new can of worms where only a few rich countries with advanced technology have the means to develop and disseminate such surveillance and prevention techniques. Bioterrorism anywhere on Earth would be an immediate concern for all nations (look no further than plague, inc) and rich countries like the US should and will have to be prepared to take the lead in developing counteragents.

  11. I agree with Jean’s assessment of the final two stragegies proposed by the authors. Sharing information and access to samples and new medical technology is in the interest of all countries working to fight bioterrorism. Moreover, it is important to share this information and technology simply in the interest of global health. If a new global pandemic were to occur, and only one nation had access to disease samples, technology, or related vaccines that might help fight against this disease, that nation would ammass a great deal of power over all other affected countries. This could ultimately lead to unfair agreements and abuses of power by the country wielding the technology, so that they might make the most of their fortunate position amid a dire cirumstance. However, if countries are more willing to share their medical advances and biotechnological tools with one another, for the sake of global health and security, it may become more likely that proper medical care will reach all nations affected by a pandemic.

    Of course, with dissemination of information comes the threat of theft or infiltration. The more channels information or medical samples must go through to be shared between countries, the more opportunities there are for the technology to fall into the dangerous hands of a non-state actor. Therefore, if the wealthier, more techologically and medically advanced nations do choose to share all of the “weapons” in their bioterrorism-fighting arsenal, this would need to be coupled with an increase in the security surrounding said technology.

  12. To jump off Michelle’s point, another aspect of bioterrorism that differentiates it from nuclear war is that the pathogen in question is the delay before effects may be seen. For instance, an actor (let’s assume a state actor for purposes of MAD)—say, the USSR—could fire nuclear weapons against the United States and we would retaliate by firing our missiles. The launch of the weapons is immediate. Furthermore, the destruction is near-instantaneous once a missile detonates over its target. On the other hand, a bioweapon that is engineered to have a longer incubation period (so that it would spread and possibly infect more people before being discovered) could spread undetected for some time. Once the attacked nation realizes that it has been the victim of a bioweapon attack, it may be at a weaker state to retaliate than it would have been before the attack; thus, the attacking actor may have the advantage to pressure the attacked nation into submitting to the attacker’s demands. The equilibrium of this scenario is not balanced.

  13. As we discuss the possibility that a bioweapon would have a delay between its use and when the resulting disease’s symptoms first appeared, we also should consider an alternative possibility: what if (as happened with some diseases in real life and Plague, Inc.) the disease is so deadly that it kills faster than it spreads? In such a case, the disease would have a transmission factor well below 1 after infecting a group, which would cause it to wipe itself out if the targeted country takes necessary precautions. If a country with a bioweapon believes their disease will accomplish just this, there is a possibility they will see the chance of the disease backfiring against them as low, which would remove any MAD-like logic from the deterrence against using a weapon.

    Another factor worth considering is the current situation of an organization or state that would consider a bioweapon an attractive option. As there are inherent trade-offs of using such weapons (like the risk of disease affecting the weapon’s user and a potential delay before the weapon has any effect), it does not stand out as a useful tool in most situations. For instance, the US did not use bioweapons in its recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan as that would make no sense. If the objective of a bioweapon is to (among other things, potentially) distract, terrorize, incapacitate, and/or kill a population, then bioweapons would appear to be something an organization/state would consider using when more conventional tools would not achieve their goals. In other words, the use of a potentially high-risk weapon would probably correspond to a group that is experiencing a certain measure of desperation in its struggle against its opponent. If an organization/group sees its survival as in jeopardy when they are not using bioweapons, they may be incentivized to accept bioweapons’ risks if there is a higher chance of improving the odds of victory in the long-term (or of enacting vengeance against a perceived foe). What this suggests is that, as disease transmissions involve fuzzier probabilities than a nuclear barrage does (although a nuclear barrage also carries risks), a desperate organization/state may see bioweapons as a more attractive option than nuclear weapons. (Obviously I cannot say anything stronger than “may”)

  14. Before we delve into the nuances of how pathogens are spread, I think it’s worth considering whether biothreats even signal a credible threat. Not only is delay, as @cmberger:disqus points out, a considerable barrier to reaching mutually assured destruction, but as Nouri and Chyba point out bioattacks are hardly “assured” destruction. As they illustrate with the example of dumping anthrax spores by airplane over a dense city, the number of those infected could range from a handful to 3 million. If the threat of assured destruction is not credible, there is reason for the attackers to believe that with superior technology they can deliver a decisive attack before the other side will be able to (i.e. no second strike capability).

    I think a more interesting comparison is between the verification of nuclear technology and of biotechnology. Before I had read this piece, I did not think it was possible to effectively monitor the development of biotechnological threats. However, the authors cite an interesting innovation of having centralized DNA synthesis centers automatically and electronically screen these developments. I think a further possibility is to require licensing for these centers contingent on implementation of screening technologies. In so doing, the screening process would be comprehensive. This does not prevent non-state international actors, who would likely have access to alternative means, from posing a threat, but many terrorist cells across the world work domestically with the few resources available to them locally, and therefore U.S.-based terrorists would have a harder time obtaining the relevant materials. It is helpful to note here that the suspects for the 2001 anthrax attacks were all domestically-based. Of course, it is always possible to synthesize the DNA in secret, but the considerable know-how required to do this alone is a significant barrier.

  15. In regard to the your question on the merit of individual strategies, I wonder if these policies proposed by Bouri and Chyba would lead to a type of prisoner’s dilemma that we have seen in the nuclear arms race and other scenarios. Policies that try to address the issue of bioterrorism through censorship of research, restrictions on bio development, and self censorship may allow countries to cheat in order to pursue an advantage in research or knowledge that could lead to both economic and military benefit. This may be especially true with the relative ease of developing bio weapons and research coupled with the difficulty in tracking and monitoring its development. If countries pursue international censorship policies, they may simply then stifle research in their own country with no guarantee that other countries follow. If other countries decide to cheat and continue to pursue bio research covertly, it could lead to a significant imbalance of bio technology that could either be weaponized and leveraged as an advantage over other nations that complied. As such, even if there were a global policy to censor or stifle research, it would be in no countries best interest to actually do so due to the potential risks of having other nations develop a serious threat against them.

    Given these arguments, I believe an international policy with higher transparency could be more beneficial. Although this could lead to a proliferation of knowledge that in some ways could indicate a higher threat, it would limit the incentive to covertly develop research, countries would be better able to coordinate with one another to mitigate biotechnological risks, and international organizations could provide some type of oversight to research being done.

  16. With regards to your question about the effectiveness of different strategies, it seems that the suggestions you listed fall under two general categories: solutions involving the limitation or distribution of knowledge, and ones that derive from policy implementations. I will address each in turn. On limiting the distribution of knowledge, this proves a very difficult endeavor. Currently, we are living in an increasingly globalized world. Information is increasingly distributed online and available to any one in any part of the world. Thus, the task of censoring the publication of biotechnology would prove extremely difficult. Further, there is another concern with limiting the distribution of knowledge that more stems from a philosophical opposition; the free flow of information and the sharing of learning is a point of pride among countries like the US. Thus, such censoring would be contrary to one of the central philosophies of the developed world. Regarding the second category of solutions, policy regulations, as you said, Samantha, would prove difficult given the pace that would be necessary. Instead of policies regulating the development of bio-weapons, it may be a better idea to focus policy efforts on response mechanisms. Typically, western and developed countries will be at the forefront of development of weapons and technologies, so it may be most effective to designate efforts to developing cures and solutions to the new weapons and technologies that come up rather than trying to prevent their usage.

  17. I agree with the point you raised regarding the likely users of bioweapons. As others have pointed out, it makes sense intuitively that terrorists would choose simpler courses of action when deciding how to carry out a terror attack rather than synthesizing a new bioweapon. However, this does not apply to rogue states such as North Korea. Several autocracies have shown a clear disregard for the living conditions of its inhabitants and have pursued other expensive and long programs aimed at harming other countries, most often nuclear, so there is reason to be fearful that they might engage in biowarfare in the near future.

    Given that these states have traditionally lagged behind Western democracies in terms of research and the fact that there are currently more than enough published papers to consult if one wishes to generate a pandemic through bioweapons, does it make sense to censor biotech research? Is it not better to simply continue funding pertinent studies so as to remain ahead of the curve and hopefully discover ways of countering bioweapons or at least minimizing their impact?

  18. I am in complete agreement that, considering arguments already mentioned that the censure of scientific research runs counter to the freedom of speech and thought in many western nations, proliferation of medical knowledge is the best response to growing risk from biotechnology.

    It seems generally unlikely that we can control biotechnology and fully prevent an attack, given the problems with international governing bodies and the miniaturization of biotechnology. Furthermore, the wide variety of potential weapons that can be fashioned from biotechnology research lowers the value of researching counteragents–although this kind of research certainly could be helpful.

    Instead, it seems to me that the best kind of policy preparation that could be undertaken would be the development of protocols for broad categories of diseases that will dictate how the CDC and other government actors move to react calmly and effectively to a bio attack. This, plus the detection mechanisms discussed in the reading, seem like they would generate the greatest return on investment, since it would cover a wide array of bio attack scenarios while not having to enter the grey moral area of censuring scientific research.

  19. I’d like to address your first question about whether people have enough awareness about bioterrorism. To some extent, I feel like an understanding of this question also provides the reasoning behind why many countries choose to pursue an active program against bioterrorism when, as “Biotechnology and Biosecurity” suggests, they often do not have a large an impact as many other “regularly-spread” infectious diseases (anthrax was used as an example in this paper). I feel like people largely do not know details about bioterrorism, and to some extent it is an instinctive psychological fear driving this (perhaps unwarranted) reaction towards potential bioterrorism. Because the type of weapon used here cannot be seen and has the potential to be so widely disseminated, it is understandable that the fear of this type of warfare is extremely high. Furthermore, as “successful” dissemination of biological weapons largely relies on common things such as air, water, or human contact, this type of terrorist attack can easily cause widespread paranoia among the victim body, as there is no longer a concrete enemy to fight against (such as the case with conventional weapons). As such, it is reasonable for governments to give into these popular concerns and put the effort into programs to combat bioterrorism, when in actuality there might be much bigger disease-related problems the country could be facing. In this sense, I believe it would be extremely important and helpful to spread more information among populations about health statistics and information about bioterrorism, so that a country’s defense focus can be managed on the basis of actual need rather than perceived threat.

  20. I think Nick’s comment about the application of prisoner’s dilemma on the topic of biotechnology is very appropriate. The incentive to cheat and not cooperate are higher in this case (compared to nuclear terrorism) precisely because of the challenges outlined in Samantha’s post above. This incentive to cheat can only be decreased by either 1) an increased assurance/guarantee that the other side will not cheat, or 2) an increased risk associated with cheating. In the case of biotechnology, it seems extremely difficult (at least at this point) to track, monitor, or impose inspections on the development.

    As Nick mentioned, a more transparent international policy would definitely be beneficial in motivating and encouraging countries to be cooperative in creating a shared, global knowledge flow of biotechnology. However, just as cooperation is extremely difficult in nuclear development programs, the same applies to biotechnology. If it’s so hard to detect and restrict your level of biotech development, why shouldn’t a country go ahead and continue its development? Falling behind in the latest technology would be detrimental to one’s national security AND other countries have no means of enforcing hard, concrete sanctions. This is definitely a problem with no clear solution, but I’m having a hard time trying to come up with reasons why countries would be willing to be cooperative.

  21. I think that one of the risks we run if we attempt to censor publications of studies and improvements of technologies in the sciences is that it will limit the work and professions of science institutions work through. Many of these scientific developments related to disease have the potential to help our society, such as work towards finding innovative cures for diseases, or potentially discovering ways to protect against bioterrorism efforts. I believe that censoring is not the most efficient option of preventing technology and techniques from being accessed by potential bioterrorists, because censorship would likely move people away from life science research professions altogether. This might cause more harm than it prevents, as it could potentially leave our society more vulnerable to natural diseases and less likely to evolve technologically. Though some types of technology are admittedly worryingly accessible on the internet, they still do require at least some limited know-how and ability to operate and understand them in order to be effective. I think that, while research may be progressing at a strong and rapid clip, the dissemination of this research to the general public (both through scholarly review and learning on the part of the public) will hopefully enable lawmakers to formulate treaties and develop inspection techniques before the information is made feasibly accessible to bioterrorist actors.

  22. As some have done below, I challenge the underlying assumptions that biological weapons (bioterrorism) are as, or more, threatening than nuclear weapons. In the 1980’s, a member of the Iranian Parliament described chemical and biological weapons as “the poor man’s atomic bomb.” Indeed, the biological weapons may be less expensive than nuclear weapons, but they are arguably more difficult to synthesize and store for that very reason; much less money has been invested in biological weapons research over the year so knowledge necessary to create them effectively and efficiently is limited. Furthermore, biological weapons may be considered less threatening than nuclear weapons because of their unpredictability. For example, terrorists may be less willing to use biological weapons for fear of harming themselves with the substances or of jeopardizing the success of an attack. Groups may also remain less willing to use biological weapons for ethical reasons. In theory, the use of nuclear weapons is in intended as an attack on infrastructure vital for military, economy, government, etc., while biological weapons merely target humans, often causing them slow and painful deaths. Maybe this makes using biological weapons less acceptable even to attackers and, thus, less threatening than nukes? Finally, it is a fact that nuclear weapons have been employed more often and on a much larger scale than biological weapons. Doesn’t that mean that nukes are more threatening? In any case, I would at least question whether biological weapons are indeed as threatening as nuclear weapons, as there are several pieces of evidence that suggest they are not quite as imminent of a danger.

  23. Of the strategies that you propose, it seems that 4 and 5 work best. Strategies 1 and 3 both involve the censorship of scientific material, which, while potentially useful in preventing the dissemination of knowledge from which biological weapons can be created, has its own host of issues. Firstly, censoring certain types of scientific publications runs counter towards scientific progress, as it impedes the ability of scientists to build off one another’s work, and may also discourage scientists from pursuing types of research that are censored. Secondly, implementing strategy 1 would require the formation of some review board with members appointed by the government. Such a board may be used as a political tool, interpreting its censorship guidelines inconsistently across multiple academic papers.

    With regards to point 2, it would be very difficult to come to come up with restrictions on biotechnological development, given the need for a large group of states to cooperate. Moreover, given the relatively small size of biotechnology (especially when compared to nuclear technology), such biotechnology agreements, if even agreed upon by a sufficient number of states, would be difficult to enforce, rendering them useless.

    Strategies 4 and 5 may be difficult to implement, but, if executed correctly, would not have any of the downsides associated with the strategies previously discussed (aside from cost, which is nearly always a factor). Moreover, executing strategies 4 and 5 would better prepare countries for a pandemic outbreak, should one occur.

Leave a Reply