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Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

A bipartisan commission is recommending an "Apollo Program" to enhance U.S. biodefense — including against engineered viruses.

Why it matters: COVID-19, which will cost millions of lives and trillions of dollars, shuts the door on any argument that new diseases aren't a major global threat. But as biotechnology improves, we especially need ways to detect and deter pathogens designed by human beings, not just by nature.

Driving the news: On Tuesday, the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense released a set of recommendations outlining how the U.S. could end pandemic threats — both natural and man-made — by 2030.

  • The commission — which is co-chaired by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge — argues for spending up to $10 billion a year to speed up vaccine prototypes, enhance genomic sequencing capabilities, and create a national public health data system, among other recommendations.

Details: The report's conclusions are solid, and they're bolstered by the fact that the commission made much the same argument in 2015, years before COVID-19. But I was particularly interested to see the attention paid to the threat of man-made pathogens.

  • The report noted that "advances in biotechnology have also made it easier to obtain or modify these pathogens, creating the possibility of pandemics emerging from deliberate attacks or laboratory accidents."
  • The commission focused on the need to develop techniques to "distinguish natural and engineered DNA and to inform attribution" of any new pathogens.

What's next: In a recent competition, hundreds of teams around the world developed algorithms designed to predict the origin of genetically engineered DNA sequences.

  • The best teams were able to predict the source lab of an unfamiliar engineered DNA sequence over 95% of the time, an improvement over the top previous results.
  • Such algorithms can be useful for regulating genetic engineering by ensuring that any edited sequences can be tied back to their point of origin.
  • But none of the algorithms would be able to determine for sure whether an unknown DNA sequence was natural or engineered, notes Lane Warmbrod, a senior analyst at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The bottom line: We can't stumble blindly into a world where DNA can be engineered like computer code.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - World

U.S. will give Russians written response to NATO demands, Blinken says

Blinken and Lavrov shake hands in Geneva. Photo: Russian Foreign Ministry / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed after a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Friday that the U.S. will provide written answers to Russia's security demands next week.

Why it matters: Russia claims to be waiting for "concrete answers" to its demands that NATO rule out further expansion and roll back its presence in eastern Europe before deciding its next steps on Ukraine. But the U.S. and NATO have called those proposals "non-starters," and Friday's meeting offered no breakthroughs, so it's unclear how written answers might change the equation.

More surprises await scientists at Antarctica's "Doomsday Glacier"

Cliffs along the edge of the Thwaites Ice Shelf in West Antarctica. Photo: James Yungel/NASA

Researchers like David Holland, an atmospheric scientist at New York University, are in a race to understand the fate of a massive glacier in West Antarctica that has earned a disquieting nickname: "The Doomsday Glacier."

Why it matters: Studies show the Thwaites Glacier (its official name) could already be on an irreversible course to melt during the next several decades to centuries, freeing up enough inland ice to raise global sea levels by at least several feet.

Updated 4 hours ago - Health

The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

Omicron's blitz around the world has underscored the need for a new arsenal of COVID vaccines and therapeutics, experts say — and that may require an effort akin to Operation Warp Speed 2.0.

Why it matters: The virus will continue to evolve, potentially in a way that further escapes vaccine protection, and the best way to prevent more global disruptions to everyday life is to have tools ready to combat whatever comes next.