This is chapter 20 of "Global Catastrophic Risks". The chapter was written by Ali Nouri and Christopher F. Chyba.

We've made a few small formatting changes to make the text easier to follow.


Biotechnological power is increasing exponentially, reminiscent of the increase in computing power since the invention of electronic computers. The co-founder of Intel Corporation, Gordon Moore, pointed out in 1965 that the number of transistors per computer chip - a measure of how much computation can be done in a given volume - has doubled roughly every 18 months (Moore, 1965). This exponential increase in computing power, now called 'Moore's Law', has continued to hold in the decades since then (Lundstrom, 2003) and is the reason that individuals now have more computing power available in their personal computers than that was available only to the most advanced nations only decades ago. 

Although biotechnology's exponential lift off began decades after that of computing, its rate of increase, as measured, for example, by the time needed to synthesize a given DNA sequence, is as fast or faster than that of Moore's Law (Carlson, 2003). Just as Moore's Law led to a world of personal computing and home appliance microprocessors, so biotechnological innovation is moving us into a world where the synthesis of DNA, as well as other biological manipulations, will be increasingly available to small groups of technically competent and even individual users.

There is already a list of well-known experiments - and many others that have received less public attention - that illustrates the potential dangers intrinsic to modern biological research and development. We review several examples of these in some detail below, including: 

  • Genetic manipulations that have rendered certain viruses far more deadly to their animal hosts (Jackson et al., 2001).
  • The synthesis of polio virus from readily purchased chemical supplies (Cello et al., 2002) - so that even if the World Health Organization (WHO) succeeds in its important task for eradicating polio worldwide, the virus can be reconstituted in laboratories around the world.
  • The reduction in the time needed to synthesize a virus genome comparable in size to the polio virus from years to weeks.
  • The laboratory re-synthesis of the 1918 human influenza virus that killed tens of millions of people worldwide (Tumpey et al., 2005).
  • The discovery of 'RNA interference', which allows researchers to turn off certain genes in humans or other organisms (Sen et al., 2006).
  • And the new field of 'synthetic biology', whose goal is to allow practitioners
    to fabricate small 'biological devices' and ultimately new types of microbes
    (Fu, 2006).

The increase in biological power illustrated by these experiments, and the global spread of their underlying technologies, is predicted to lead to breathtaking advances in medicine, food security, and other areas crucial to human health and economic development. For example, the manipulation of biological systems is a powerful tool that allows controlled analysis of the function - and therefore vulnerabilities of and potential defences against - disease organisms. However, this power also brings with it the potential for misuse (NRC, 2006). It remains unclear how civilization can ensure that it reaps the benefits of biotechnology while protecting itself from the worst misuse. 

Because of the rapid spread of technology, this problem is an intrinsically international one. However, there are currently no good models from Cold War arms control or non-proliferation diplomacy that are suited to regulating this uniquely powerful and accessible technology (Chyba and Greninger, 2004). There are at least two severe challenges to any regulatory scheme (Chyba, 2006). The first is the mismatch between the rapid pace of biotechnological advances and the comparative sluggishness of multilateral negotiation and regime building. The second is the questionable utility of large-scale monitoring and inspections strategies to an increasingly widespread, small-scale technology.

However, this is not a counsel for despair. What is needed is a comprehensive strategy for the pursuit of biological security - which we assume here to be the protection of people, animals, agriculture and the environment against natural or intentional outbreaks of disease. Such a strategy is not yet in place, either nationally or globally, but its contours are clear. Importantly, this strategy must be attentive to different categories of risk, and pay attention to how responses within one category strengthen or weaken the response to another. These categories of risk include: naturally occurring diseases; illicit state biological weapons programmes; non-state actors and bio-hackers; and laboratory accidents or other inadvertent release of disease agents.

Just this listing alone emphasizes several important facts. The first is that while about 14 million people die annually from infectious diseases (WHO, 2004) (mostly in the developing world), only five people died in the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States (Jernigan et al., 2002), and there have been very few other modern acts of biological terrorism. Any approach to the dual-use challenge of biotechnology, which substantially curtails the utility of biotechnology to treat and counter disease, runs the risk of sacrificing large numbers of lives to head off hypothetical risks. 

Yet it is already clear that humans can manipulate pathogens in ways that go beyond what evolution has so far wrought, so the hypothetical must nevertheless be taken seriously. A proper balance is needed, and an African meeting on these issues in October 2005 suggested one way to strike it. The Kampala Compact declared that while 'the potential devastation caused by biological weapons would be catastrophic for Africa' , it is 'illegitimate' to address biological weapons threats without also addressing key public health issues such as infectious disease. The developed and developing world must find common ground.

A second important observation regarding biological terrorism is that there have, so far, been very few actual attacks by non-state groups. It is clearly important to understand why this has been the case, and to probe the extent to which it has been due to capabilities or motivations - and how whatever inhibitions may have been acting can be strengthened. Sceptical treatments of the biological terrorism threat, and of the dangers of apocalyptic dramatization more generally, can place important focus on these issues - though the examples of dual-use research already mentioned, plus recent US National Academy of Sciences studies and statements by the UN Secretary-General make it clear that the problem is real, not hype. 

(One important sceptical discussion of the bioterrorism threat is Milton Leitenberg, Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat.)

While the focus of this chapter will be on biotechnological capabilities, and how those capabilities may be responsibly controlled, it should be remembered that a capabilities-based threat assessment only provides part of the comprehensive picture that is required. Indeed, it is striking to compare the focus on capabilities in many technology oriented threat assessments with the tenor of one of the most influential threat assessments in US history, George Kennan's 'X' article in Foreign Affairs in 1947. In this piece, Kennan crystallized the US policy of containment of the Soviet Union that prevailed for decades of the Cold War. On reading today, one is struck by how little of the X article addressed Soviet capabilities. Rather, nearly all of it concerned Soviet intentions and motives, with information based on Kennan's experience in Soviet society, his fluency in Russian, and his knowledge of Russian history and culture. To the extent that the biological security threat emanates from terrorist groups or irresponsible nations, a similar sophistication with respect to motives and behaviour must be brought to bear (see also Chapters 4 and 19 in this volume).

In this chapter, we first provide a survey of biological weapons in history and efforts to control their use by states via multilateral treaties. We then describe the biotechnological challenge in more detail. Finally, we survey a variety of approaches that have been considered to address these risks. As we will see, there are no easy answers.

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