Can the bioweapons convention survive Crispr?

By Daniel M. Gerstein | July 25, 2016

When the Eighth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention convenes in November, as it does every five years, to review the operations of the treaty and assess new developments in science and technology that might challenge its relevance, Crispr will be waiting for it. A revolutionary biotechnology that’s making genetic editing easier, cheaper, and far more accessible than before, Crispr has also been called a major security threat by America’s intelligence chief. If the seven previous review conferences are any indication, the gathering in November will recognize Crispr’s contribution to the biotech field, then enthusiastically declare the convention fit to address any problems it might create. But will that be enough?

The convention, which dates to the early 1970s, takes a flexible—some might say elastic—approach to identifying what it outlaws, believing that general prohibitions are harder to evade than specific ones. Banning the weaponization of a given pathogen, for example, is easier than banning any specific experiment or procedure that might make weaponization possible. This helps explain why members of the review conference will most likely conclude that Crispr falls within the scope of the existing agreement, which therefore need not be modified on account of the new technology. Given this likely outcome, what can the convention do to ensure that the norm against the use of biological pathogens, regardless of origin, remains strong?

What won’t work. A good starting point might be a realistic assessment of how Crispr differs from other proliferation threats. The novelty and importance of Crispr is not that it can enable the genetic editing of a pathogen—tools for this have been available for decades. What Crispr does is make the technology widely available, allowing even largely untrained people to manipulate the very essence of life. Crispr-based kits go for less than $500 in some cases, with pathogen-specific kits—West Nile virus, human coronavirus 229E, human adenovirus 35, to name a few—offered up like so many choices at a grocery store. Companies selling these kits are certainly not keeping registries of buyers or attempting to control the technology beyond the intellectual property that has been invested. The kits come with operator manuals that have only minimal warnings about containing hazardous materials and being for laboratory use only. Considering the safety and security problems those labs (and other biological facilities) often encounter, the use of such kits outside of them is especially frightening.

Attempting to limit the use of such technology through nonproliferation regimes and export controls would certainly not work because the technology has become commonplace. Trying to establish registries of buyers would be similarly ineffective and unwieldy, given the wide availability of the technology, and limiting the technology could have negative effects on the biotech industry. (Crispr, after all, has a wide range of legitimate applications, from human medicine to food and agriculture, that should be protected.) Traditional verification based on quotas for proscribed items, restrictions on use, and intrusive inspections is simply not an option for this new technology; counting pathogens or conducting exhaustive inspections of biological facilities is an infeasible and impractical way to monitor Crispr usage and would not increase confidence in compliance.

National implementation must translate to national responsibility. This hardly means the review conference can do nothing, though. Members of the bioweapons convention are bound by Article IV to aid with national implementation of the treaty, and the proliferation of Crispr makes this a key provision—if, that is, the review conference is ready to require greater action from those nations. As the sole decision-making body for the bioweapons convention, the review conference should at the very least require more of its members in terms of surveillance and training at the national level. Countries could be made to develop their own laws, policies, and regulations to prohibit dangerous activities emanating from this new technology. They could also be required to develop surveillance capabilities for spotting the development of new pathogens or the modification of existing ones.

Although this might require the development of new technology, including diagnostics for identifying non-natural pathogens, scientists should form the first line of defense in this campaign, and stepped-up efforts at the national level, spurred by new requirements at the bioweapons convention, could make that happen. Within every member nation, scientists should receive proper education and training on the dangers of Crispr technology, and make safety and security procedures a cornerstone of any lab they enter. In the United States, the federally mandated biosafety committees that oversee genetic research throughout the country should thoroughly monitor and review research involving Crispr technology, and bioethics should play a role as well, instituting a firm understanding of how Crispr should and should not be used everywhere from large institutions to neighborhood laboratories.

National implementation should also translate to national responsibility. Countries should accept responsibility for threats emanating from their territory, regardless of the cause. For naturally occurring disease and accidents, this responsibility implies rapid identification of the issue, reporting through international and regional channels, and full sharing of information on the threat. For deliberate incidents, either those caused by the misuse of technology or those caused by bioterrorists, national responsibility should include providing appropriate information to those that might be threatened, followed by the investigation and prosecution of those responsible and perhaps even the paying of restitution to affected parties.

Provisions for such national responsibility would likely require commitments and obligations that go beyond what the convention currently requires of its members. At a minimum, the review conference should consider revising these when it meets in November.

Rethinking traditional approaches. National responsibility also ties into what should be a larger reconception of the bioweapons convention in light of new biotechnologies like Crispr. Rather than focusing on traditional verification methods involving pathogens, technology, and equipment, the emphasis should be on people and activities—e.g., the proper training of scientists, lab workers, and medical students. Limited visits to high-level biocontainment facilities, during which officials from the bioweapons convention would assess training, procedures, and security, could lay the groundwork for a new style of verification catered to new biotech threats. Such a visit from convention ambassadors to several US high-containment facilities in 2012 demonstrated the usefulness of this approach. The 10 ambassadors gained an appreciation for the type of work that was being conducted and the reason it was so vital for protecting populations from dangerous biological pathogens, regardless of whether they are naturally occurring or human-made. Opportunities for direct interaction with laboratory personnel provided the delegation an important sense of transparency and openness. 

Furthermore, the processes and organizations of the convention should fit the biotech pace of this century rather than the last one. That means stronger institutional structures. Decision making should be permitted at annual meetings, not limited to the review conferences held every five years. The convention’s Implementation Support Unit must be expanded beyond its current three-person staff, which barely has the capacity to carry out its task of work with nations on their confidence-building measures, the annual means by which members disclose information to the convention. More generally, the convention must have greater capabilities for monitoring biotechnology advances and gaining scientific advice. A larger Implementation Support Unit would be useful here as well, but procedures for calling on experts must also be in place to allow for a more informed dialogue on pressing biological issues.

Crispr is here to stay, and it is reasonable to assume that even more powerful gene editing and synthesis techniques will continue to evolve. Those gathering at the review conference in November must seriously consider whether advances in biotechnology have made the existing bioweapons convention obsolete, but they must also ask what more the convention can do, as the reigning body for regulating biological weapons, to ensure that new biotechnologies continue to be used for peaceful purposes only.

Editor's note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Eighth Review Conference will convene in December. It will in fact convene in November

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