First off, thank you to Tessa Alexanian for recommending this course in her Biosecurity Reading List

I found the course had lots of repetition / vague content. So this is a summary of the most useful concepts from the course.[1] [2] I hope it helps people learn about biosecurity more quickly. [3]


Definitions

  • Biosecurity: keeping pathogens secured away from malicious actors.
  • Biosafety: keeping people safe from harmful pathogens.
  • Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs): the spread of biological agents causing widespread harm beyond the ability of governments and the private sector to control.
  • Biological Weapons (Bioweapons): a disease-causing agent that has a way to be delivered to target humans, plants, or animals.
    • This could be a pathogen: a micro-organism that causes diseases. Or it could be a toxin: a chemical produced by a living organism that causes diseases.
  • Synthetic biology: designing new biological parts, systems, and functions that don’t exist in nature.
  • Gene editing: artificially modifying the DNA of an organism to achieve desired traits.
    • Ex: Increasing the yield of a crop. Ex: Making a virus more transmissible.
  • Gene drives: editing the genes of an organism in a way that guarantees those changes will be passed on to future generations.
  • Gain-of-function research: Intentionally creating more dangerous versions of pathogens. To understand what makes them dangerous + how to treat them.
  • Dual-use research: research that can be used for both 'good' and 'bad'.
  • Outbreak: more cases of a disease in a community, geographical area, or season than what is expected.
  • Virulence: the severity of an illness.
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE): clothing / wearable equipment to protect against infectious agents. Ex: Gloves, lab coats, safety goggles, biosafety cabinets, positive pressure suits.
  • Pathogen accountability system: tracking which biological agents are where and under the care of who.
  • Export controls: restrictions on which biological materials/equipment can be exported/imported. For example, permits and regulations on who can export which materials to whom.
  • Biological Weapons Convention - agreement from 1972 banning the development, possession, and use of bioweapons. Among other things. (Source)

Key Concepts

  • Hazard groups (HG) define the 'danger level' of a certain pathogen. They're based on the pathogen's ability to cause disease, their transmissibility, and whether cures exist for them.
    • HG 1 -  do not cause risk in healthy adults. Ex: E. coli.
    • HG 2 - pathogens that are already in the environment. Diseases they cause is treatable or preventable. Ex: Herpesviruses.
    • HG 3 - pathogens that cause serious diseases in individuals. May have treatments. Ex: Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
    • HG 4 - pathogens that cause deadly diseases and are highly transmissible. Individual AND community risk. Do not have treatments. Ex: Marburg virus (in 2022).
  • Biosafetety levels (BSL) define which precautions should be used when handling pathogens of a given hazard group. Shows standards for both constructing a laboratory and training personnel on safety precautions.
    • BSL-1 - basic safety like having easily-cleanable surfaces.
    • BSL-2 - Above and hand washing sinks, eye washing stations, doors that close automatically, and equipment to decontaminate waste like an incinerator. Most laboratories have BSL-2 certification.
    • BSL-3 - Above and biosafety cabinets that contain / filter air, controlled airflow out of experimental areas, multiple self-closing doors, and sealed windows.
    • BSL-4 - Above and isolated zoning, specialised biosafety cabinets, full-body suits, and required sanitation/decontamination when entering/exiting the laboratory.
  • Bioweapons can be designed to spread or just have one target. Toxins are used for bioweapons with one target (ex: a political assassination). Micro-organisms are used for bioweapons designed to spread (because they can replicate).
    • Examples of 'micro-organisms' in the next section.
  • Solutions to biosecurity happen at several stages all at once.
    • Prohibitions that show a norm against bioweapons. Ex: The Biological Weapons Convention.
    • Standards on the handling, storage, use, and transportation of dangerous pathogens/toxins. Ex: Export controls, lab policies.
    • Response plans in case of disease outbreaks. Ex: the guidelines of nonprofits like Doctors Without Borders.
    • Prevention measures ahead of outbreaks. Ex: FBI or Interpol helplines for scientists to report unsafe lab practices.
    • Monitoring to detect outbreaks. Ex: Startups like Bluedot use realtime data like travel statistics to predict outbreaks ahead of time.
    • Interventions after the use of bioweapons. Ex: Sanctions or armed conflict.
  • All research is 'dual-use.' Any finding can have ways to do 'good' and 'bad'. Some examples of research are especially concerning (dual-use research of concern):
    • How to make a vaccine ineffective?
    • How to create resistance to antimicrobial drugs?
    • How to increase the transmissibility or virulence of a pathogen?
    • How to alter the hosts that a pathogen can infect?
    • How can a disease evade diagnostic/detection tools?
    • How to disperse a dangerous pathogen/toxin?
  • Intentional, state-run bioweapons development programs have the largest and most diverse risks. Though smaller-scale, non-state actors (like terrorist groups or rogue scientists) may create more frequent risks.
    • This is because it takes specialised procedures to handle biological pathogens and toxins. (Like storing/transporting them until release or during modification to make them more dangerous.)
    • Non-state actors like terrorists would instead use weapons that are more readily-deployable in the short term. They can exploit the most lax biosecurity standards during natural outbreaks, when new infrastructure and personnel are quickly needed.
    • Also, accidental releases by state-run facilities create more frequent but smaller-scale risks.
  • Advances in technology are increasing risk from bioweapons. 
    • First, technologies to make bioweapons (like bioreactors or gene editing) are cheaper, more compact, and faster than ever.
    • New technologies like 'cloud labs' (companies that perform experiments on your behalf), open-access publications and genetic databases, or 'gene drives' (genetic mutations that are guaranteed to spread in organisms) make it easier for an individual to do more damage.
    • As new biotechnology develops, each state/private organisation has a deterrence incentive to get access to it before others do.
    • Also, even non-biotechnology adds to bioweapons risk. For example, social networks enable the spread of misinformation / conspiracy theories like lab leaks. This lowers international cooperation. Or, cybercrime allows sensitive research results to be stolen. Or, the spread of wireless devices and cybercrime allows outbreak response services (like entire hospitals) to be shut down.
    • Even general globalisation can prevent biosecurity. Increasing urban density and contact between humans and wild animals are leading to more novel zoonotic diseases (ex: COVID-19, Ebola, etc.)  every decade. (Source) And increased urban density, trade, and travel make these diseases easier to spread.
  • Types of biosecurity in labs
    • Physical security to delay/deter intruders. Ex: Lighting to prevent areas where people can hide, fencing and cleared vegetation to prevent access, few and guarded/locked entry points to prevent access, etc.
    • Pathogen accountability systems to track risks. Knowing which biological materials are under the care of who.
    • Data security measures. Ex: Encryption, passwords, access management for digital data. Ex: Preventing copies and physical locks for paper records. Especially protecting data about biological materials inventories, laboratory floor plans, and research studies.
    • Screening for laboratory staff. Ex: stringent references during the hiring process, mental health checks, criminal background checks, monitoring laboratory access patterns for abnormal behaviour, etc.

Examples / Case Studies

  • Historical uses of biological weapons by states
    • Several countries in World War II used or developed biological weapons. For example, the Japanese dropped fleas infected with the bacteria that causes the plague over Chinese cities. (Source)
    • The US and the Soviet Union had the largest biological weapons programs in the Cold War. The world banned biological weapons by the 1970s, but the Soviet Union kept secretly operating a biological weapons program for almost 20 more years. It employed tens of thousands of scientists and received billions of modern-equivalent USD in funding. (Source)
    • In general, 23 countries are known/suspected to have had biological weapons programs at some point in time. Including the US, Canada, the UK, the Soviet Union, Iraq, Japan, South Africa, and more.
  • Historical uses of biological weapons by non-state actors
    • A religious cult in 1984 dispersed Salmonella bacteria in salad bars in a county in the US. This gave food poisoning to 750 people and caused 45 to be hospitalised. (Source)
    • Another religious cult in Japan in 1995 successfully released chemical weapons in Tokyo and unsuccessfully tried to release the botulinum toxin / anthrax bacteria. (Source)
    • A rogue scientist in 2001 sent letters with a powdered form of anthrax to US senators. (Source) This led to 5 deaths, thousands of hospital visits, and $1B in cleanup costs!
    • One criminal from the US was planning to murder his wife using a toxin from a puffer fish. He called a sales associate at a company to buy the toxin, but the sales associate tipped off law enforcement. (Source) This shows why every employee can play a role in biosecurity at companies with access to biological materials.
  • Accidental failures in biosecurity from laboratories.
    • The Sverdlovsk Incident in 1979 was caused by an accidental release of anthrax from a bioweapons research facility in the Soviet Union. Soviet officials covered up the outbreak by blaming it on contaminated meat. 75 people died as a result. (Source)
    • In 2004, the CDC exposed 80 personnel to live anthrax samples instead of dead ones. And a facility in the US discovered old vials of smallpox virus specimens in insecure storage. (Source)
    • In 2014, a scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison created a more transmissible version of a flu virus in a BSL-2 lab. (Source)
    • In 2001, Australian researchers accidentally created a strain of mousepox that killed 100% of mice. They only meant to reduce invasive mice population. (Source)
  • Case studies of cybersecurity risks affecting biosecurity
    • Around 2016, a Canadian researcher reassembled the horsepox virus by buying DNA samples from commercial companies. (Source)
    • Laboratory equipment can be damaged via hacking. One group did this by encoding 'malware' in DNA. The DNA was then read by digital equipment like genetic sequencers. (Source)
    • Sensitive data breaches can expose individuals' health vulnerabilities. Ex: 50% of Canadians had their health data exposed when a medical diagnostics company was hacked. (Source)
    • In 2016, ransomware infected a chain of hospitals, leading 10 hospitals and 250 outpatient centres to shut down. (Source)
    • The pharmaceutical company, Merck, was hacked in 2017, causing $1 billion in damages! It had to reduce vaccine production and halt new drug discovery due to the hack. (Source)
  • The Ebola outbreak shows how biosecurity can be lax during a natural outbreak.
    • The specific disease wasn't identified for 3 months. This is what let the first individual transport the virus across borders.
    • There was little security for biological samples on the ground. Patients didn't always consent to give blood samples, the samples were transported in unprotected private transit (like with a scooter driver for hire), some samples were mixed up, some samples are thought to have been stolen, and it took a week to get samples processed (leading to acquired infections in treatment clinics). Finally, when the outbreak was declared over, international partners left samples unsecured as they left their laboratories.
    • Local communities weren't informed about the role of foreign volunteers. Thus, locals were sometimes uncooperative. Ex: Some labs had rioters burst in (putting everyone at risk of exposure). And survivors were thought to be infectious still. So stigma ruined the lives of survivors. Ex: Some were beaten, had their homes destroyed, were fired from their jobs, etc.
    • Some terrorists tried to get pathogen samples while pretending to be volunteers. (Source) And strict measures on recruitment or restricting access to samples weren't always implemented.

Questions

  • How do conspiracy theories/misinformation affect our ability to reduce global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs)?
  • How can the biological weapons convention be better enforced when it doesn't have mandatory audits for countries that agreed to it?
    • How well does it tackle risks from non-state actors?
  • Who should make decisions on biosecurity guidelines? Currently the WHO's guidelines 'trickle down' to individual scientists. But each country, lab, and scientist have variation in following them.
    • How do we regulate the increasingly-open access to biotechnology?
  • Which restrictions are we willing to place on scientists for the purpose of security?
    • Should scientists be responsible for monitoring how others are using their work?
    • Who should get to decide who can approve a research project?
    • How should scientists communicate their research? When/how should they be held accountable for miscommunications (and their consequences)?
    • All research is dual-use (could be used for 'good' or 'bad'). So how do we prevent misuse without foregoing the potential upside?
  1. ^

    The source is the course unless specified otherwise.

  2. ^

    The summary excludes vague or overly-specific content from several interviews. For example, an interview of an FBI agent that mentions who lab scientists in the US can contact to report misconduct. Or an interview explaining the different articles of the Biological Weapons Convention. 

  3. ^

    I understand the summary likely has imprecise wording that experts wouldn't appreciate. Like whenever I say 'good' or 'bad' uses of research. My intention is purely to explain the most important ideas to people who've never looked into the area.

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