A few days ago, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) wrote a letter to President Obama recommending the implementation of new countermeasures against bioterrorism threats. The advisors are calling for the creation of a new government body that will devise strategies for national biodefense, particularly against synthetic DNA, gene regulation, genome-editing and genome-targeting technologies like CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats), and gene delivery. They are also insisting that the president be regularly updated on any relevant developments. The council would like to see the biodefense strategy set up within the next 6 months, plus supporting funds worth $2 billion.
While the council acknowledges the difficulty the world has been facing in relation to natural biological threats (such as the Ebola and the Zika virus), it also highlights the necessity of dealing with artificially engineered threats as these have the potential to be even more dangerous than naturally occurring threats.
The benefits that have come from advancements in technology cannot be denied. Sadly, the other side of it cannot be denied too. While many try to use technology for good intentions, there are also some who would misuse it for their own selfish benefits. As the council stated in their letter: “Relatively straightforward examples of misuse would include the modification of pathogens to overcome existing immunity or to be resistant to available drugs.”
PCAST is especially concerned with the CRISPR gene-editing tool. It basically provides a way to add and remove certain parts of a DNA sequence so animal, plant and human genomes can be altered and manipulated. This opens up a wide range of possibilities from the creation of antibiotic-resistant pests, enhanced and more dangerous pathogens, or even viruses that are specifically engineered to be lethal only to a specific person or a specific race.
According to PCAST, the biological threats that were focused on in the past two decades only included ‘known human and agricultural pathogens’ such as anthrax, Ebola and smallpox. Although there was sufficient legislation against these threats, these laws were made way back in 2002. And as the field of biotechnology grew at an accelerated rate, the laws have remained stagnant. Which means it is highly unlikely that those laws can cover the new threats that have emerged since then.
Technology has obviously made major advancements recently which is why we need to exert extra efforts to catch up so we can prepare for what can happen. As it is, we still have many problems without answers. So if we can’t fight what is in front of us, what hope do we have of fighting what isn’t even there yet? It’s a daunting task and it will take major collaborative effort to have a shot at fighting an enemy that can either remain hypothetical or eventually become real.
Should we just wait? We’re delving into scenarios that science fiction and apocalyptic movies are made of. But if moviemakers can come up with such plots, who’s to say they didn’t get the idea from somewhere, right? And so we say – way to go PCAST! The threat you are warning against might not materialize, but it is always better to be prepared than be sorry.