Synthetic biology & biosecurity: How scared should we be?

The link between synthetic biology and heightened biosecurity threats is often exaggerated. In a report published today (22nd May), King’s College London researchers say that in order to produce more refined assessments of the biosecurity threat, we need to understand more clearly what would be achieved by synthetic biology’s goal to ‘make biology easier to engineer’.

Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity: How scared should we be? summarises and analyses the discussions from a workshop organised by Dr Catherine Jefferson, Dr Filippa Lentzos and Dr Claire Marris, at King’s in February 2014.

Synthetic biology’s aim to make biology easier to engineer has raised concerns that it could increase the risk of misuse for biowarfare or bioterrorism. The workshop brought together synthetic biologists, social scientists, policy experts and science journalists to explore whether concerns about these risks are realistic or exaggerated in the light of current scientific realities.

It is often assumed that synthetic biology will ‘de-skill’ biology and that this means that any layperson, working outside professional scientific institutions, is or soon will be able to design and engineer living organisms at will. However, workshop participants argued that this representation is too simplistic. De-skilling does not necessarily mean that skills become irrelevant. As we see in other industries such as aeronautics, de-skilling does not necessarily mean that specialised expertise becomes irrelevant.

The report will be presented at the meeting of experts to the Biological Weapons Convention at the United Nations in Geneva this summer.

Join the discussion and tell us what you think on twitter: #synbiosec

The “Synthetic Biology and Biosecurity” workshop and report formed part of SSHM’s on-going work on the social dimensions of synthetic biology, conducted within the EPSRC funded Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation and the Flowers Consortium, and an ESRC funded project on the politics of bioterrorism.

[Original post by Filippa Lentzos; cross-posted from The Trench]

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2 Comments on “Synthetic biology & biosecurity: How scared should we be?”

  1. Dawn says:

    Thank you, Dr Zanders, for your update.

    In the report, Claire Marris, Filippa Lentzos & Catherine Jefferson purports that current fears of synthetic biology are exaggerated, thereby resulting with the implementation of misguided policies. The report further notes that current policies tend to place emphasis on how to make pathogens, rather than focusing on the issue of how to make biological weapons, in particular weapons of mass destruction. It further draws attention to the importance of “distinguish[ing] between weapons designed to generate terror from weapons designed to cause mass destruction: terror weapons do not need to cause extensive physical harm and thus do not require sophisticated weaponisation.”

    Despite the writers downplaying the threat of bioterrorism, I believe that there are reasons to be more scared of biological weapons than nuclear or chemical weapons. (Which I acknowledge may be due to hype that is constantly reinforced by the media, as highlighted in the report.) Regardless of the perceived inability of terrorists to be able to adequately weaponise the agent, the threat continues to be a valid one, and a threat that the international community is expected to address. As per Masood Khan, the sixth President of the BWC Review Committee, “…extraordinary advances achieved in biosciences meant that biological weapons were – in theory – within reach of the smallest laboratory and most modest budget. No government, no international organization, could hope to monitor effectively the tens of thousands of small biotechnology facilities in operation worldwide. Clearly, this was a problem that needed a collective, multifaceted and multidimensional approach.” (http://goo.gl/x9kWp3)

    Security Council Resolution 1540 imposed binding obligations on all States to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. However, as Kofi Annan put it, bioterrorism would “require innovative solutions specific to the nature of the threat. Biotechnology is not like nuclear technology…. The approach to fighting the abuse of biotechnology… will have more in common with measures against cybercrime than with the work to control nuclear proliferation.” (http://goo.gl/gLLDGE). Biological weapons concerns, however, differs from the nuclear weapons and chemical weapons regimes; the NPT is supported by verification by the IAEA, and the CWC by the OPCW. There does not exist an organisation that oversees the development of biological weapons. Precisely because the BWC is not reinforced by a verification system, there is thus a greater difficulty for the international community to properly conceptualise the scope of a threat of bioterrorism. Despite the Australia Group having expanded to creating guidelines for biological weapons, not only does the group continue to focus mainly on chemical weapons, but the group is also merely a voluntary, informal, export-control arrangement consisting of 40 member states and the European Commission.

    Newsweek ran an article earlier this year, contending that bio-error may be more dangerous than bio-terror. (http://goo.gl/UEGhzK). I do not think that this proposition is unfounded – and when read in conjunction with the report’s dismissal that potential terrorists do not have the organisational ability to create a genuine threat of bioterrorism, does it not give rise to the risk that any negligent mistake made by a potential scientist/terrorist could pose an equally significant threat to the international community, if not more?

    Hope you have a lovely day today.

  2. JP Zanders says:

    As indicated in the original posting, I am not the author of this piece. I only cross-posted it from my own blog at http://www.the-trench.org/blog.

    I will draw Dr Lentzos’ attention to your comment.


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