May 14, 2020 - Science

The coronavirus pandemic reawakens bioweapon fears

Illustration of two crossed syringes surrounded by circles

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The immense human and economic toll of the COVID-19 pandemic only underscores the threat posed by pathogens that could be deliberately engineered and released.

Why it matters: New technology like gene editing and DNA synthesis has made the creation of more virulent pathogens easier. Yet security and regulation efforts haven't kept pace with the science.

What's happening: Despite some claims by the White House, overwhelming scientific evidence indicates that the novel coronavirus was not accidentally released from a lab or deliberately engineered, but naturally spilled over from an animal source.

  • That doesn't mean the threat from bioweapons isn't dire. Along with AI, engineered pandemics are widely considered the biggest existential risk facing humanity.
  • That's in part because a pathogen could be engineered in a lab for maximum contagiousness and virulence, well beyond what would arise through natural selection.
  • Case in point: a 2018 pandemic simulation put on by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security featured a fictional engineered virus called Clade X that combined the contagiousness of the common cold with the virulence of the real-life Nipah virus, which has a mortality rate of 40-75%. The resulting simulated global outbreak killed 150 million people.

COVID-19 isn't anywhere near that fatal, but the pandemic has shown the vulnerability of the U.S. and the world to biological threats both natural and manmade.

  • "Potential adversaries are of course seeing the same things we’re seeing," says Richard Pilch of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. "Anyone looking for a radical leveling approach — whether a state actor like North Korea or a motivated terrorist organization — may be influenced by COVID-19 to consider pursuing a biological weapons capability."

Background: Bioweapons were officially banned by the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975, though North Korea is suspected of maintaining an offensive bioweapons program.

  • A particular concern about biowarfare and bioterror, though, is that many of the tools and methods that could be used to create a weaponized virus are largely indistinguishable from those used in the course of legitimate scientific research. This makes biotechnology "dual-use" — and that much more difficult to safely regulate without cutting off research that could be vitally important.
  • While earlier bioweapons fears focused on the possibility that a state or terror group could try to weaponize a known dangerous agent like smallpox — which would require somehow obtaining restricted pathogens — new technology means that someone could obtain the genetic sequence of a germ online and synthesize it in the lab.
  • "If you've been trained in a relevant technical discipline, that means you can make almost any potentially harmful agent that you're aware of," says Kevin Esvelt, a biologist at the MIT Media Lab and a member of the CDC's Biological Agent Containment Working Group. That would include the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, which was recently synthesized from its genetic sequence in a study published in Nature.

How it works: Currently, synthetic DNA is ordered through commercial suppliers. But while most suppliers screen DNA orders for the sequences of dangerous pathogens, they're not required to — and not all do, which means safety efforts are "incomplete, inaccurate, and insecure," says Esvelt.

  • Screening efforts that look for the genetic sequences of known pathogens also wouldn't necessarily be able to detect when synthetic DNA was being used to make something entirely novel and dangerous.
  • In the near future, desktop DNA synthesizers may be able to generate synthetic DNA in the lab, cutting out the need for commercial suppliers — and potential security screenings.
  • The democratization of biotechnology could unleash a wave of creativity and innovation, just as the democratization of personal computing did. But it also increases the number of people who could potentially make a dangerous engineered virus, whether deliberately or by accident.

What's next: Experts agree on the need for a stronger international regime aimed at controlling bioweapons and regulating dual-use biotechnology research. But given the growing animosity between the U.S. and China over the origins of the novel coronavirus, that may be an impossible ask.

  • Scientists in the biotechnology world working on dual-use research — and the organizations that fund them — need to "know as much as possible about the risks beforehand," says Beth Cameron of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
  • Esvelt has proposed the creation of a secure screening process that would use advanced cryptography to make it far more difficult for rogue actors to obtain synthetic DNA that could be used for potentially dangerous purposes.
"COVID-19 has been a catastrophe for the world but there is a potential for even greater catastrophe. And we are not prepared for this."
— Beth Cameron
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