Last week the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), which consists of 18 scientists and policy experts in various disciplines, issued a letter to President Obama on the potential emergence of new forms of bioterrorism.
“While the ongoing growth of biotechnology is a great boon for society, it also holds serious potential for destructive use by both states and technically-competent individuals with access to modern laboratory facilities,” the PCAST members wrote. “Molecular biologists, microbiologists, and virologists can look ahead and anticipate that the nature of biological threats will change substantially over the coming years. The U.S. Government’s past ways of thinking and organizing to meet biological threats need to change to reflect and address this rapidly-developing landscape.”
As detailed in the letter, the US approach to biological threats for the last two decades has focused on a “dangerous subset of known human and agricultural pathogens.” The legislation outlining these threats dates back to 2002, and while the field of biotechnology has significantly changed in the last 14 years, the laws have not kept up with new developments.
In particular, PCAST is concerned with gene editing technologies like CRISPR—a gene editing tool that enables the easy addition and removal of parts of a DNA sequence—and other novel ways of manipulating human, animal and plant genomes. As the authors of the letter point out, it is now possible to synthesize large stretches of any DNA sequence, manipulating gene expression is becoming easier than ever, and there is growing success in the use of viruses and other vectors to deliver genetic material to cells.
While these techniques have fostered stunning advances in medicine, they also harbor the potential for misuse if they fall into the wrong hands. For example, the letter’s authors imagine a scenario in which CRISPR technology creates viruses that “can cut, modify, repress, or activate a host gene so as to disrupt an important cellular function.”
This might sound pretty far-fetched, but even back in 2001 researchers were able to modify the genetics of a mousepox virus to kill mice who were normally immune to the virus using biotechnology that was far less sophisticated than CRISPR.
The group also cited growing concern about non-intentional biological threats, such as the outbreak of diseases like Zika, Ebola, and H1N1, which reflect a changing global landscape insofar as these types of threats are compounded by rapid urbanization, globalization, and climate change. While the form biological threats will take in the future is uncertain, what is certain is that the United States is not at all prepared to deal with them.
“PCAST concludes that the current organizational structure will not ensure that the United States has the leadership that is necessary to anticipate, prepare for, and respond to the entire evolving landscape of biological threats enabled by the rapid advance of biotechnology,” the letter’s authors wrote.
Despite the fact that the US has put out a number of directives related to biological threats in the past decades, “all are increasingly out of date, especially in light of ongoing rapid advances in biotechnology.” The most concrete plan is outlined in the National Policy for Biodefense released in 2004 and this hasn’t been updated since 2008—a time when the potential of the CRISPR system was just beginning to emerge.
To counter the threats posed by emerging biotechnologies, PCAST recommends improved biosurveillance, defined by the US government as “the process of active data-gathering with appropriate analysis and interpretation of biosphere data that might relate to disease activity and threats to human health.” A 2007 Homeland Security directive outlined the need for an integrated disease-surveillance system, which would be able to track the emergence of diseases in real-time and provide early warning of possible (un)-intentional biological threats.
Subsequent directives in 2012 and 2013 provided a roadmap for a biosurveillance network that would integrate human, animal and plant health data from the government, tribal, and private sectors so that the spread of disease among different populations could be anticipated and addressed as quickly as possible.
Although some progress is being made on creating a robust biosurveillance network in the US, it is not keeping up with technological developments. In light of this shortcoming, PCAST offered a several recommendations, which included establishing a $2 billion Public Health Emergency Response Fund, creating an interagency organization to coordinate biosurveillance activities, fostering (inter)national communication among laboratories to facilitate rapid data exchange, and developing “additional classes of broad-spectrum antibiotic and antiviral drugs,” so that if shit hits the fan, we’ll have the tools to “neutralize…agents of biological attack.”
For now, PCAST is just thinking ahead and these intentional threats largely remain hypothetical. As the letter’s authors note, “creating a truly novel and effective pathogen is unlikely to be simple,” however “despite these challenges, the risk are real and will only grow as biotechnology becomes more sophisticated in the years ahead.”
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