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Biosecurity Policies Benefit from Experimentation

safe dial with DNA letters
Experimental approaches to biosecurity policy could better anticipate new biological and health threats. | Darryl Leja, NHGRI

Biological science and its applications are rapidly evolving, and to keep up with emerging security concerns, their governance should be as well. But due to the rapid pace of change in biological research, the current political landscape and the increased recognition of natural biological threats like COVID-19, existing biosecurity processes are being pushed to their limits.

In response, new ways to govern the life sciences are emerging and challenging traditional assumptions regarding the safety and risks associated with biological research and technology. However, these approaches to governance are often ad hoc responses to newly identified risks and applied without systematic evaluation or critique, according to the authors of a Policy Forum in the April 10 issue of Science.

"It should not take hundreds of thousands of corpses around the world and a recession to get us to assess and address the limitations of our current systems of governing health security and biosecurity," said Sam Weiss Evans, lead author and Harvard University Fellow.

At present, no capability exists for structured learning about the effectiveness and limitations of current biosecurity governance, Evans and his colleagues concluded.

"We can do that by taking a more experimental approach to biosecurity and health security governance, periodically testing and reassessing basic assumptions we are making about science, security and society," said Evans.

The authors' approach acknowledges that it is more or less impossible to fully know how biology will be used to cause harm or how best to prevent its misuse, and instead focuses attention on evaluating the existing systems' limitations and strengths before catastrophic events occur.

The dual nature of biological research has long been recognized. Advances in the life sciences and the worldwide proliferation of powerful biotechnologies have provided invaluable benefits to human health and society. However, the same knowledge and technology behind the treatment of some of humanity's most intractable diseases also allows for the creation of new pathogens or biological toxins capable of causing significant harm if applied with malevolent intent.

Biosecurity describes the measures put in place to protect people, animals and the environment from these potential biological threats, whether rooted in human malice or natural pandemic disease.

Biosecurity governance, however, is less easily defined. Lacking an internationally agreed-upon definition, Evans and his team loosely define the term as the policies and processes designed to prevent or deter misuse of biological science and technology.

Traditional approaches to biosecurity governance have focused on risk management and the malicious exploitation of research. However, this rather rigid approach assumes that threats are known and able to be controlled, the researchers write.

"Many of our biosecurity governance structures have not significantly evolved, for example, in the 45 or so years since the advent of molecular biology. For instance, most export controls and other biosecurity governance is based on lists of known dangerous organisms," said Evans.

However, in an age where novel life can be synthesized and existing organisms reforged with new attributes, the shortcomings and limitations underlying traditional biosecurity governance have become increasingly clear. Our ability to manipulate biological material using gene-editing tools like CRISPR, synthetic genomics and gene drives — a genetic engineering technology that forces certain genetic traits to spread through a population — have illuminated previously unknown and still poorly understood risks.

"We must learn to manage risks as quickly as we learn to manipulate life, but it remains unclear how well we are doing," wrote Megan Palmer, a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University and author of a March 2020 Science editorial.

"Our definitions of biosecurity and the ways biosecurity is managed and ensured in practice are evolving," said Palmer, a coauthor of the Policy Forum. "We need to take a more systematic and experimental approach to assessing [governance] so we can improve over time."

Evans said one of the most insidious threats regarding poor biosecurity governance is the creation of widespread security vulnerabilities through approaches that are intentional, but not fully thought out. Experimentation promotes a greater ability to quickly identify unanticipated surprises and the ability to adapt governing processes to account for them.

"We only have the systems we have today because we needed to build something after past events showed us deficiencies in our ability to anticipate and react to biosecurity threats. If we assume that our systems can always be better, we will always be hunting for how they do not meet the needs of different groups that interface with it," said Evans.