Synthetic Biology & Bio-security

  • IASbaba
  • June 15, 2021
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  • GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in Health sectors 
  • GS-3: Challenges to National Security

Synthetic Biology & Bio-security

Context: The growth of exponential technologies such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is bound to change the theory and practice of national security. COVID-19 has quickened the inevitable.

Synthetic biology is a revolutionary technology which can help us manipulate biological organisms and processes for human betterment, especially in treating diseases, by re-engineering cells

There are many risks associated with Synthetic technology which must be addressed before it becomes widely accessible. Some of these risks are:

  • Incomplete Understanding: The rapid rise of synthetic biology in the last two decades and its still-to-be-understood implications haven’t received sufficient attention from the security studies or policy communities. 
  • Deliberate Misuse: While the technology is still not easily accessible, the day is not far off when such technologies won’t be difficult to access. There is a need to carefully review, especially in the wake of the pandemic, the biosecurity systems in place where such technologies are in use.
  • Bioweapons: A well-planned attack using highly infectious pathogens synthetically engineered in a lab could be disastrous. This should concern security establishment.
  • Lacks attention of Policy makers: The linkage between national security and synthetic biology is yet to become an agenda item in mainstream national security debates.  Contrast this with the focus on nuclear weapons, facilities and material. 
  • Accidental leaks of experimental pathogens are another concern. Insufficiently trained staff, inadequately safeguarded facilities, and lack of proper protocols could all be behind such leaks
  • Dual Use Technology: While bio-weapons are banned, research for medical and bio-defence purposes are allowed. While this is understandable, the problem is that there is a thin line between bio-defence research and bio-weapons research. Bio-defence research could potentially be used to create bio-weapons.
  • Inadequate International Regulation
    • Unlike the nuclear domain, the fields of biology or synthetic biology are not regulated internationally despite growing military interest in synthetic biology applications and their potential misuse.
    • When it comes to bio-weapons, all we have is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 with no implementing body. 
    • The BTWC does not have a verification clause, nor does it have clearly laid down rules and procedures to guide research in this field.
  • India Uniquely Unprepared: Given poor disease surveillance, insufficient coordination among various government departments dealing with biosecurity issues, porous borders and ill-trained border control institutions and the pathetic state of the healthcare system, India is ill prepared for defending against pathogens or dangerous biological organisms attack.

Way Forward

The November 2021 BTWC review conference must take stock of the advances in the field, address the thinning line between biotechnology research and bio-weapons research, and consider international measures for monitoring and verification.

Connecting the dots:

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