Why biodefense research is necessary

By Leonid F. Ryabikhin, February 20, 2008

Bioscience and biotechnology have an inherent dual-use nature, and genetic information, as an integral part of bioscience, has the same nature. So, yes, the availability of genetic information is dangerous. Because the potential misuse of this information poses a threat, the information needs to be controlled or regulated. What these control mechanism should look like and how they are implemented are complex issues. But we cannot ignore this problem.

At the dawn of nuclear physics, all scientific information related to the field was open. But most of this information disappeared from open sources when Germany, Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union launched nuclear weapons programs. Nowadays, anyone can find descriptions about how to make a nuclear bomb on the internet, but the essential portion of sensitive information is still classified and restricted. From whom and why? From potential adversaries and “bad guys,” such as terrorists, rouge states, and irresponsible regimes.

I agree with Gigi Kwik Gronvall that the lack of direct experience developing bioweapons could be overcome with trial and error. But the lack of such experience and information make this job very hard and maybe impossible. When control regimes work, they make this task even more difficult. Scientists should not exempt genetic or other biological information that can be unpredictably harmful to humans and nature from such controls.

What should be controlled? Two options for control exist: controlling access to information or controlling the use of information. A well-balanced combination of these two options would be preferable. I support a few of the interesting points made by my colleagues in this discussion. Iris Hunger and Jens Kuhn raise the possibility of the deliberate generation of dangerous genomes, and this is exactly the type of information whose access should be restricted.

I agree that bioscientists and security experts should work together to install an oversight system, such as that proposed by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland. Additionally, we need to ensure the free access of genetic information for developing biodefense countermeasures in coordination with responsible organizations and licensed specialists. The free access to scientific information is, after all, a main condition for scientific and technological progress. But scientists should work to find the proper balance between free access to information and control over its use.

Like many experts, I don’t think that any state or terrorist organization will use bioweapons or bioagents in the near future. Matt Meselson gave many reasons for this in his January/February 2007 Bulletin interview. Among the strongest arguments are the lack of political and military rationales for their use. Yet, because a large-scale bioattack coincides with the terrorists goals, nations need to build robust and effective biodefense systems. They should base these systems on two key elements: early warning–surveillance, monitoring and even epidemiological intelligence–and a developed public health system capable of responding to dangerous disease outbreaks–both natural and artificial. The participants in this roundtable all understand the challenges we face and the necessity to probe broadly for solutions.


Share: [addthis tool="addthis_inline_share_toolbox"]