The National Academy of Sciences has released a new report entitled “Globalization, Biosecurity and the Future of the Life Sciences.” You can read it online here, and an article about the release of the report is found here.
The report looks at the threats that could be posed by a new generation of biological pathogens, developed as a result of advances in biotechnology such as RNA interference and synthetic biology. It considers what sort of framework is necessary to begin to understand and deal with these growing threats.
One of the key points of the report is the idea that scientific openness should not be curtailed:
It is an unfortunate reality that almost all advances in life sciences pose potential “dual use” risks. But better science is our best protection against potential threats. This is not to advocate the creation of a “biological arms race,” but to recognize the simple fact that better vaccines, better drugs, and better countermeasures in general, not to mention anticipation of potential threats, will stem from such a flow of information…
We recognize and emphasize the counterproductive nature of efforts to control the flow of biological information. Given the widening threat spectrum, our best means of future protection comes from the exploitation of science, paradoxically the very advances in technology about which we are so concerned.
I’m a bit less sanguine then the authors of the report, and I’d like to see a study written on this subject that brings scientists together with security and intelligence experts on the same task force. While openness should be the prevailing principle, there are certainly some types of information that it’s not wise to make publicly available; for example the DNA sequencing of the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 50 million people has been recreated and made available to the public. Was that really a good idea?
Many of the other arguments in the report are very appropriate. For example, the report recommends the need to “adopt a broader perspective on the threat spectrum”:
Recognize the limitations inherent in any agent-specific threat list and consider instead the intrinsic properties of pathogens and toxins that render them a threat and how such properties have been or could be manipulated by evolving technologies.
Adopt a broadened awareness of threats beyond the classical “select agents” and other pathogenic organisms and toxins, so as to include, for example, approaches for disrupting host homeostatic and defense systems, and for creating synthetic organisms.
It’s absolutely essential that the nation’s biodefense research efforts shift from an “agent-based” focus to a broader “capabilities” or “attributes”-based focus over the long term. We don’t want to find ourselves in a situation where years of productive research on a single agent such as anthrax is rendered useless by a single mutation or modification.