Synthetic Biology: A Risky Game

As part of our new edition, the Perspectives Blog, Philosophy and Psychology finalist Ollie Base approaches our first topic, ‘Biotechnology’. He tackles the global risks involved in the development of synthetic biology, and explores the possible solutions to these risks.

image:Nicolas Myers

Biotechnologies, while offering humanity the opportunity to explore and enhance our biological systems for worthy ends, also constitute an unprecedented global risk if employed carelessly. This piece will focus on the potential dangers of synthetic biology and the concern that advancements in this field will increase the risk of a pandemic; an outcome which may constitute a global catastrophic risk.

To understand the severe risks posed by biotechnology, it is necessary to consider the dangers of large-scale disease outbreaks, or pandemics. Pandemics are dangers to humanity on par with catastrophic climate change and global state-conflict. This is not speculation: the 1918-20 “Spanish” flu epidemic killed about 50 million people. That’s more than all the casualties of World War I, wiping out 3-5% of the world’s population at the time. A pandemic today could wreck even more havoc because of our interconnected global society, though it might also be better controlled, thanks to the advances of modern medicine.

Biotechnology, or synthetic biology, is essentially a catalyst for pandemics. Pathogens can be engineered to be more infectious and more lethal by increasing the incubation period (the gap between exposure to the pathogen and the first symptom, meaning it can be passed on before it is detected) or by making the pathogen airborne. Such a process may only take a few genetic changes to a pathogen or virus and may not even be deliberate. For example, researchers claim that it would take only three mutations to make the H7N7 strain of influenza both airborne and infectious to humans.

‘Dual-use’ research, research that could be used for positive or negative ends, may accidentally result in a deadly pandemic or might inadvertently create techniques which could be utilised by malicious actors such as terrorists, warring factions or governments. This can happen if researchers accidentally release pathogens they are studying or become careless about the information related to the pathogen’s effects. Again, this is not speculation: there is substantial evidence to suggest that the 1977-1978 Russian flu epidemic was actually caused by a laboratory incident in Russia or Northern China.

Furthermore, a pandemic caused by synthetic biology may be harder to control that a natural pandemic. This is because the technology used to create the pathogens, deliberately or not, will probably require fewer resources, making it hard to monitor and regulate. Because the damage can be done so suddenly, such threats are also very hard to predict unlike similar risks such as nuclear war or asteroid impact.

What can be done about this risk? Strategies include improved monitoring, regulation and prevention of potentially dangerous research and advocating policy-makers to increase funding for bio-security initiatives. The recent controversy surrounding a mutation of the Avian Flu virus H5N1, where research making the virus more infectious was censored by the US government, is a good example of the debate that can and should arise about the necessity and risk of this kind of research.

In summary, given the catastrophic risk of pandemics combined with the catalyzing force of risky synthetic biology and virology, this area of biotechnology deserves considerable wariness and concern.

Ollie Base is a Philosophy and Psychology finalist at the University of Warwick, and he is a former president of the university’s Effective Altruism Society.

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