Addressing the Threats of Emerging Biotechnologies

By Dr. Diane Dieuliis and Dr. James Giordano

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We have noted with interest the pivot in U.S. biodefense programs published in National Defense recently as the United States and other nations strive to keep pace with emerging biotechnology capabilities that complicate the threat landscape.

We support such activities and propose some additional approaches toward threat mitigation that we believe are critical to national and global biosecurity and defense.

Advancements in gene editing, the tools of synthetic biology, and the ever-increasing sophistication of assessment and interventional techniques and technologies of the brain sciences are made possible by the convergence of bioengineering and information technology — inclusive of big data approaches and the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence.

This “bio-convergence” — as Deb Rosenblum, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense, discussed in the article — now extends beyond traditional arenas of biomedicine to entail and affect agriculture, energy, materials, commodities and other sectors that influence local, regional, and global economics and public health. In these ways, bio-convergence leverages hegemonic power in and across several domains and dimensions of the current and near-future world stage.

The promise of these advances is evident. To wit, the White House on Sept. 12 released its long-awaited Executive Order, “Advancing Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Innovation for a Sustainable, Safe, and Secure American Bioeconomy.”

The order announced a "National Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing Initiative," thereby creating new investments and resources that will allow the nation to harness the full potential of bioscience, engineering and commercialization.

Important to these enterprises are efforts of the Defense Department to address and resolve key defense-related challenges by employing state-of-the-art biomanufacturing processes. The new CHIPS and Science Act additionally focuses on advancing the U.S. bioeconomy through an emphasis on bioengineering research, and the establishment of a national genomic sequencing capability.

However, while apparent benefits of such science and technology initiatives are numerous, these capabilities also incur dual use risks.

In this light, we have described how “biodata,” which is essential to bioscience and technology and its varied applications, can be used to identify molecular and biochemical pathways that can be manipulated to make existing microbes to be more pathogenic, harness genetic information needed to create novel pathogens, and be employed to target particular individuals based on their genomic and medical information.

In these regards, it is notable that the CHIPS Act includes language that explicitly directs bioengineering enterprises to engage in risk-benefit assessments in light of just such risks.

Truly, these are proverbial signs of the times, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief the importance and necessity for biosecurity preparedness, readiness and responsiveness. Hopefully, recognizing gaps in national and international infrastructures, functions and capacities will serve as lessons to be learned, both for those ways that bio-convergence tools and methods could provide advanced biothreat response capabilities, and also be used to contribute to extant and/or emerging risks and threats.

Toward such ends, we have called for modernization efforts in biosafety and biosecurity and applaud the most recent efforts of the World Health Organization in this endeavor.

Yet, it is crucial to note that while whole-of government cooperation, and a whole-of-nation approaches will be vital to any meaningful efforts of this sort, the Defense Department, U.S. government, and national enterprises at-large are not alone in evident requirements to bolster biodefenses in the post-COVID19 geopolitical ecology. We would argue that such efforts should extend to international forums where these issues, questions, problems, and dialectical paths toward resolution.

We believe that implementing these goals will require coordinated national and multi-national activities to increase awareness of current and emerging science and technologies that can be utilized as threats; quantify the likelihood and extent of threats that are posed; mitigate, if not counter identified threats; and prevent or delay development of future threats.

In sum, we posit that important steps to achieving this level of preparedness and response will necessitate establishment of a network of offices to coordinate academic and governmental research centers to study and to evaluate current and near-future gray zone threats.

There must also be methods to qualitatively and quantitatively identify threats and the potential timeline and extent of their development. In addition, there should be a variety of means for protecting the United States and allied interests from these emerging threats.

Computational approaches to create and to support analytic assessments of threats across a wide range of emerging technologies may be leveraged and afford purchase in gray zone engagements.

In light of other nations’ activities in this domain, we view current and emerging biosciences as providing potential for present, and viable future threats to public health and global biosecurity.

We opine that critical to the type of program and steps that we have proposed are the development of guidelines that are cognizant of peer-competitor nations’ values and intentions, and which liberal democracies could employ for the ethical use of current and emerging biotechnologies, while remaining aware of possible utilization by adversaries, as well as their directing their own uses, in particular settings, and under specific conditions.

Dedicated and sustainable programs of this sort will require ongoing domestic funding, participation and the support of like-minded, multi-national allies. But we perceive such efforts and commitment to be worthwhile, important and necessary, as the threat posed by of emerging technologies is clear.

As we have stated in the past — and reiterate here — it is not a question of if such methods will be utilized, but rather when, to what extent, and by which group or groups. Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, the question is if the United States and its allies will be prepared for these threats when — or before — they are rendered.

Dr. Diane Dieuliis is a senior research fellow at the National Defense University. Dr. James Giordano is a professor of neurology and biochemistry and chief of the Neuroethics Studies Program at the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, Georgetown University Medical Center, and a senior research fellow of biosecurity, technology and ethics at the Naval War College.

Topics: Research and Development

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