Life sciences knowledge, materials, and technologies are advancing worldwide with Moore’s Law-like speed.1 It is undeniable that this new scientific knowledge and these advancing technologies hold extraordinary potential to improve public health and the quality of life for people worldwide, strengthen national economies, and close the development gap between the North and South. However, as with all scientific revolutions, there is a potential dark side to the advancing power and global spread of biotechnology. Every major new technology has been used for hostile purposes, and many experts believe it naive to think that the extraordinary growth in the life sciences and its associated technologies might not be similarly exploited for nefarious purposes.
The threat of bioterrorism, coupled with the global spread of expertise in biotechnology and biological manufacturing processes, raise concerns about how this advancing technological prowess could enable the creation and production of new agents of biological terrorism with unique and unpredictable characteristics. The Committee on Advances in Technology and the Prevention of Their Application to Next Generation Biowarfare Threats,
an ad hoc committee of the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine, is examining current trends and future objectives of research in the life sciences, as well as converging technologies from other fields such as materials science and nanotechnology, that may enable the development of a new generation of biological threats over the next five to ten years, with the aim of identifying ways to anticipate, identify and mitigate these dangers.
ABOUT THE WORKSHOP
As part of its study, the committee held a workshop at the Instituto Nacional de Salud Publica (National Institute of Public Health) in Cuernavaca, Mexico, in September 2004. The purpose of the workshop was to sample global perspectives on the current advancing technology landscape. Experts from different fields and from around the world presented their diverse outlooks on advancing technologies and forces that drive technological progress; local and regional capacities for life sciences research, development, and application (both beneficial and nefarious); national perceptions and awareness of the risks associated with advancing technologies; and strategic measures that have been taken, or could or should be taken, to address and manage the potential misapplication of technology(ies) for malevolent purposes. This report summarizes the formal and informal discussions held at the workshop.
Rather than an exhaustive analysis, the workshop was designed to take a limited number of snapshots of the current global technological landscape, the forces that drive it, and new capabilities that may emerge from it, particularly with respect to the dual-use risk of advancing technologies (as used in this discussion, the “dual-use risk” refers to beneficial applications that have the potential to be exploited for malevolent purposes). The workshop was not intended to spawn recommendations or conclusions. The information gathered, as summarized in these five chapters, will inform the committee in developing its report on advancing technologies and the prevention of their application to next-generation bioterrorism and biological warfare threats. The final release of that report is planned for late 2005.
The global technology landscape is shifting dramatically and rapidly, both in terms of the types of technological advances being made and the geographical spread and distribution of these advances. Although some of the most recent advances in biotechnology, such as control of gene expression through RNA interference or the development of entirely new genes using combinatorial approaches coupled with biological selection, remain relatively restricted in their use, the proceedings from this workshop made it abundantly clear that advances in genomic sequencing, com-
puting, and bioinformatic techniques have already profoundly shaped the international technology landscape of today. As highlighted in Cuernavaca, the global spread of these technologies has led to the establishment of national genomic medicine platforms; high throughput microbial sequencing; the development of novel production methods, such as plant-based manufacturing of vaccines, antibodies, and other pharmaceuticals; and advances in transgenic crop bioengineering.
This burgeoning genetic knowledge base and technological growth is unequivocally global. China has some 20,000 people working in 200 biotechnology laboratories nationwide, has created 150 transgenic crops, and is a world leader in the production of protein-enhanced materials. Cuba boasts a major drug and biotechnology program, including the production of a meningococcal serotype B vaccine and a number of other pharmaceuticals that are being sold worldwide. South Korea performed what may be the world’s first successful therapeutic cloning experiment and is positioning itself as a leader in stem cell research. Singapore is investing billions of dollars in biotechnology, declaring it to be the “fourth pillar” of its economy. More than 76 sequencing centers worldwide, including centers in Brazil and China, have participated in sequencing at least one complete microbial genome.
The global dissemination of life sciences knowledge and advancing technological capacity is being driven not only by the growing use of international subcontracting and technological cooperation agreements, but also by national decisions to strengthen economy, public health, and national security, as well as international decisions to close the development gap between the North and South. It is accelerated by both long-term and short-term exchanges of biological scientists between lesser developed countries and countries such as the United States and those in Western Europe and Asia. This rapid growth and dissemination of biotechnology is unstoppable, as it should be, since advancing technologies holds tremendous potential for advancing the human security2 of the global population.
As with all technological revolutions, the potential always exists for intentional or inadvertent misapplication. These rapid technological advances, accompanied by a growing understanding of the molecular, biochemical, and physiological pathways of living organisms, particularly with respect to innate immunity, and the control of gene expression, almost inevitably place greater destructive power into the hands of the
Human security, as distinct from national or state security, is the condition or state of being characterized by freedom from pervasive threats to people’s rights; these threats include economic, food-security, health, environmental, and political situations. “Human Security Now,” http://www.humansecurity-chs.org/. Accessed November 1, 2004.
technologically able and point the way to dangerous, subtle, and insidious ways to cause human disease and catalyze economic and political consequences. The United States and the world need a new way of thinking about how to live with the increasing risks posed by the global proliferation of knowledge, technology, equipment, and materials.
Some analysts argue that the inherent difficulties in obtaining and handling the materials necessary to create, manufacture, and disseminate bioweapons are prohibitive and limit the utility (and threat) of such weapons.3 Others argue that, on the contrary, bioweapons are the “poor man’s atomic bomb” and thus have the potential to create as much, if not more, human misery and terror than any other weapon of mass destruction (WMD).4 Either way, the unpredictability of state and non-state efforts to acquire and employ biological weapons poses a serious vulnerability to national, and global, stability and security.
On the first day of the workshop, presentations and discussions were divided into two sessions. In the first session, “Drivers of Global Technological Development,” the goal was to address the following questions: Why have advancing technologies grown in the directions that they have, and what are some of the obstacles that groups, nations, and regions face in their pursuit of the positive aspects of technology growth? In the second session, “The Global Landscape of Technology/Efforts to Mitigate Risks for Misapplication,” presentations and discussion focused on how advancing technological opportunities are being exploited for beneficial purposes.
On the second day of the workshop there were, again, two sessions: “Safeguarding the Benefits of Technology—Addressing the Dual-Use Dilemma” and “Emerging and Converging Technologies.” The goal of the former was to provide a global perspective on the wide range of measures currently being implemented or explored as viable strategies for managing the dual-use dilemma. The goal of the latter was to explore some emerging technologies, future technological trajectories, and the dynamic evolution of new dual-use risks with time.
ORGANIZATION OF THIS REPORT
Chapter 2 of this report summarizes workshop presentations on several features of the global advancing technologies landscape, with a focus on genomic medicine in Mexico and Singapore; microbial genomic sequencing; plant-derived pharmaceuticals; and transgenic crop bioengineering. Again, the workshop presentations and dialogue summarized here provide only a limited snapshot of the current global landscape.
Chapter 3 of this report summarizes the complex set of forces driving the global proliferation of advancing technologies. Also included in this chapter is a brief account of South Africa’s former bioweapons program.
Chapter 4 provides a summary of workshop presentations and discussion on emerging technologies, many of which have yet to be applied. These discussions complemented others held by the committee during its previous meetings. The goal of exploring these emerging technologies was to capture a transitory view of some emerging technologies with dual-use potential. Given that advancing technologies have exhibited extraordinarily rapid growth and will likely continue to do so, one workshop participant wondered how different this view might be if the workshop were held just a few years in the future.
Chapter 5 summarizes steps currently being taken in response to the dual-use dilemma and lessons to be learned from other relevant risk experiences, most notably nuclear weaponry. Major topics of discussion were the opportunities and challenges associated with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC); opportunities and challenges associated with various non-BWC activities, such as those of the Australia Group; and issues pertaining to the role of the individual scientist in managing the dual-use risk of advancing technologies and whether and how a code of conduct might be useful. The chapter concludes with a summary of general approaches for addressing the dual-use risk of advancing technologies.
This summary provides an account of presentations and discussions that took place during the two-day workshop. It bears emphasizing again that the material presented in this and the following chapters represents the views and opinions of individual workshop participants only and are not to be construed as reflective of the deliberations of a formally constituted study committee. It is not intended to be an exhaustive exploration of the subject matter and has contributed to the larger information-gathering efforts of the committee.