The unintended consequences of biosecurity solutions

By Gigi Kwik Gronvall, February 6, 2008

As the roundtable winds down, I’ve begun to reflect on what I’ve learned from the conversation
and what can be done to move the subject forward. We are in agreement that genetic sequences should
remain available. Our supporting arguments for this position vary, as do our emphases on what’s
important, but surprisingly, we are in general agreement.

Our opinions differ, however, about the difficulty of making and using a biological weapon, and
whether states or small groups are of greater concern. I think it would be far less difficult to
make and deploy a biological weapon than some of the other participants on this roundtable believe.
I believe most states can produce bioweapons if they want, but that small groups can as well, and I
find that more worrisome. Time will tell if this is an accurate assessment. While each of our
judgments are all likely to be wrong in some way, let us hope that we are all wildly wrong in every
way and that biological researchers are able to safeguard their work for the benefits of health and

Jens Kuhn proposed following the international oversight system set forth by the Center for
International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM) to ensure that future. I agree with the
intended purpose of the CISSM system, and it is an excellent starting point for discussion. But it
has several flaws, and its implementation would not be a net gain for biosecurity. For example:

  • the likely speed of the research review proposed by the plan could slow down science a great
    deal, driving scientists in dual-use disciplines to go to other areas of research, or to work
    around the system;
  • the issue of “who decides?” what areas of research require oversight could be extremely
    contentious and may not reflect the real risks inherent in a proposed experiment;
  • the oversight system is unlikely to encompass all international biology research, particularly
    as several countries see biotechnology as a key economic driver for their future;
  • the system would be hugely expensive to set up and audit, and would require scientists and
    others to devote many hours to the review process;
  • it is not intended to prevent malicious actors, and may thus be perceived as an unfair burden
    on legitimate science.

Finally, the outcomes of many, or even most, biology experiments cannot be determined ahead of
time, making it difficult to prevent the formation of dual-use knowledge. If it were possible to
know these outcomes, there would be no need to do the experiments. Any mechanism that attempts to
deal with potentially dangerous knowledge will have to contend with possible side effects on
legitimate, and potentially life-saving, research.

While the debate about how to best deal with dual-use dangers continues, scientists and policy
makers should take care of the obvious threats. They should also focus on health and safety by
being better equipped to respond to infectious diseases. Considering all we know about anthrax
disease, and the fact that
Bacillus anthracis was used in a biological weapons attack seven years ago, it is deeply
disturbing that the United States is ill prepared to respond to an aerosol anthrax attack. If we
can’t respond adequately, if there isn’t enough vaccine, and if people can’t get antibiotics fast
enough to make a difference, it will still be an attractive weapon.