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.
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.
- Gain-of-function (GOF) research attempts to improve our understanding of an organism’s pathogenesis, transmissibility, and other factors
- GOF research is accelerated by breakthroughs in protein engineering (e.g. directed evolution or machine learning)
- The recent advent of benchtop DNA synthesizers could allow anybody to synthesize any gene sequence
- CRISPR technologies enable the systematic editing of genes in live organisms at scale
Opportunities from biotech:
- Better vaccines
- Personalized medicine and entirely new therapeutics that go beyond current approaches
- Gain-of-function research can help us understand the mechanics of pathogen spread better
- Better crop resistance and new biofuels → decreased pesticide & fossil-fuel use
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:
- No international framework to identify & govern dual-use research of concern
- Gaps in data-sharing at the international level
- No definitive registry of BSL-3 and BSL-4 labs (the highest risk categories). There is no international authority monitoring these. Most incidents probably aren’t disclosed.
- Protocols for DNA synthesis screening differ internationally and are rarely applied by companies
Solutions to the risks posed by biotech:
- Artificial Intelligence can help with solutions. For instance, using neural nets to find risky labs from open-source data or improved diagnostics
- Wastewater monitoring to detect the presence of pathogens
- Pandemic test-ban treaty: ban dissemination of results from riskiest experiments
- Work with labs to establish secure and universal DNA synthesis screening (IBBIS is doing this)
- Implementing the WHO’s global accord on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response
- Implementation and verification mechanisms for the Biological Weapons Convention
- Reduce vulnerabilities: improve personal protective equipment, vaccine development, install germicidal low-wavelength light
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
- 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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