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?