Biotechnology: a Brief on Risks and Opportunities

· 3 min read
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The last few years have witnessed exciting developments in the field of biotechnology, driven in part by the machine learning revolution. However, as the Covid-19 pandemic shows, humanity is vulnerable to biological threats, whether natural or man-made. Biotechnological progress is increasing the risk of extreme pandemics.

To assist international policy actors in the development of sustainable technological development, we’re publishing this short guide to recent developments in biotechnology.

Risks and opportunities from biotechnology

1-sentence summary: Biotechnology has great potential for vaccines and medicine, but as long as we lack the political will to implement existing clean air technologies at scale, it also increases the likelihood of catastrophic pandemics.

Definition: Biotechnology refers to the design and construction of artificial biological pathways and organisms.

Key developments:

Opportunities from biotech:

Catastrophic risks from biotech:

  • Engineered pathogens can have worse virulence/transmissibility tradeoffs as seen in nature: they could spread faster and be deadlier

  • Plummeting costs means thousands of actors may soon have access to these tools (Esvelt, 2022, p.10)

  • Engineered pandemics could kill billions or even pose an existential risk.  The originator could be:

Governance gaps in biotech: 

Solutions to the risks posed by biotech: 

Prominent case studies of risks from biotech:

  • Dugway proving ground: a prominent ‘lab leak’ incident: the a US government lab accidentally mailed anthrax samples to labs around the country 
  • Aum Shinrikyo was a cult that released synthesised sarin gas into Tokyo subway in the 90s
  • The Soviet bioweapons programme: cost billions of $, undetected for decades

Prominent experts:

  • Kevin Esvelt  is an expert (one of the pioneers of Crispr); he now devotes his work to reducing risks from biotechnology
  • George Church is another founder of the field who has spoken publicly about the risks

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