In recent decades, scientists have made incredible progress in our ability to detect, understand, and combat biological threats, whether naturally occurring or human-made. Despite these advances, the start of the third decade of the 21st century marked a collective awakening, in the form of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic. This biological calamity manifested the importance of — and vulnerabilities in — public health infrastructure and the global supply chain. Though the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19, erupted into a deadly worldwide crisis, it also ignited efforts to monitor and rapidly assess the rapidly shifting landscape of viral variants and their consequences. Furthermore, the SARS-CoV-2 crisis propelled a massive build-out of mRNA vaccine production and deployment, along with a deepening of our understanding of pandemic epidemiology and fundamental virology and immunology.
What Is “Biosecurity”?
The term biosecurity provides an umbrella for a wide swath of research and policy efforts concerned with threats to both human and non-human life (the biology part), and building the knowledge and capacity to address those threats (the security part).
A deadly virus, a rapidly mutating strain of bacteria, new technologies that sequence DNA to detect disease, our public health infrastructure’s ability to respond to epidemics, agro-terrorist attacks that threaten to wipe out our food supply — all fall under the broad purview of biosecurity.
For Joseph DeRisi, professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, and co-president of the CZ Biohub, it’s essential to consider how biosecurity challenges that seemed insurmountable 20 years ago can now be managed and mitigated with readily accessible technologies, such as metagenomic sequencing for infectious disease, a process he pioneered. Such genome sequencing efforts fit a key tenet of biosecurity: mitigating the spread of disease through rapid biological threat detection and data capture, especially in low- and middle-income countries that bear the heaviest disease burden. Through his efforts at the CZ Biohub, Dr. DeRisi is building on pre-pandemic efforts to establish a global, real-time pathogen monitoring network in the places that need it most. CZ Biohub Senior Biosecurity Fellow Patrick Ayescue’s efforts in leading the Biohub’s CZ GEN-EPI (which makes genomic epidemiology accessible and actionable for public health officials and policy makers) also hit at this core principle.
Philosopher Nick Bostrom, whose work centers around the threats and opportunities to the progression of humankind, thinks of biosecurity in even more expansive terms that take the field’s potential beyond human health impacts. As emergent technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning play an increasingly central role in bioengineering, we are beginning to see tangible implementations of technology that, as he puts it, “improve human welfare or the economy, or enrich human lives in various ways.” In other words, biotechnology development represents an area where the power of technologies can be applied to the promotion of a healthier, more resilient society.
How Quickly Things Can Improve
Genome sequencing is a central example in the way humankind can rapidly change its capability to do science. According to the NIH, the cost of sequencing a complete genome has fallen 100,000 fold in just the last 20 years. This epochal feat of engineering means that detecting and managing threats to human health is easier, faster, and more accessible than ever. Despite the monumental threats to biological life with which we are currently grappling and that lie on the horizon, our ability to counter pathogens has never been stronger, and yet, massive structural, political, social, and financial barriers remain blockers to fully realizing our true potential.
Where We’re Going
Safeguarding humanity in the decade and centuries ahead means building the capacity to quickly detect and stay ahead of biological threats, wherever they may occur. The future of biosecurity research and innovation lies various focus areas, key among them:
- Antimicrobial Resistance
Our current arsenal of antimicrobial medicines is proving ineffective against rapidly mutating “superbugs” that are becoming more and more resistant to available antibiotics. Antimicrobial resistance (AMR) presents a looming biosecurity threat because it hinders our ability to treat common illnesses, leading to drastic consequences for human welfare. To combat AMR and strengthen our ability to manage disease, we need to better understand the determinants of resistance, develop more innovative antibiotics, and increase their efficacy in patients.
- Engineered Threats
As scientists and engineers on the cutting edge continue to exponentially expand the capabilities of bioengineering, affecting and altering the biosphere will become easier and cheaper to accomplish — for the good actors, but also for the bad ones. To promote applications that benefit human welfare and prevent those technologies from falling into the wrong hands, the global scientific community will need to implement protocols to control access to high-impact tools and processes.
- Rapid Detection and Response Infrastructure
Speed is a critical variable in biosecurity efforts: the faster a pathogen is detected, the faster efforts to mitigate its effects can be deployed, whether the pathogen be viral, bacterial, fungal, or even parasitic. For instance, Bostrom foresees a potential implementation of DNA sequencing technology that enables “real-time monitoring of wastewater facilities or toilets in airports” in order to track the presence of harmful agents in highly trafficked zones. Such detection and prevention infrastructure requires more than just engineering — it’s also a policy issue. Instituting live biological monitoring to contain global threats will require coordinated efforts between discrete public health agencies. DeRisi points out that biosecurity doesn’t deal solely in research or strategy: “It's knowledge, on-the-ground clinical awareness, hands-on training, compute, and infrastructure that allows rapid response.”
What long-range outcomes will unfold as a result of public health decisions made today? The answers to such a question may be elusive, but they are crucial to implementing robust systems and technologies that promote the well-being of all humans. Bostrom terms this line of thinking “macrostrategy,” which takes the following approach: “If you want to have some positive, long-term, all-things-considered effect on the world, what should you do? How could you sort of map up all the consequences that flow from different choices we could make, [and predict their] long-term outcomes for intelligent life?”
- Balancing Accessibility
As the capabilities of biotechnology rapidly expand, preventing bad actors from using these tools while ensuring patients on the ground can access them becomes a balancing act. Ayescue notes that a great deal of research remains within the academic bubble, and often doesn’t reach “the people directly addressing the problems in the clinic.” On the other hand, making tools like DNA synthesis open source and widely accessible makes it easier for bioterrorists to print and release modified viruses. The task, as Ayescue says, becomes one of “[ensuring] that technology can penetrate in a way where it's actionable when these events occur.”
The last 20 years of unprecedented breakthroughs in biotechnology signal that solutions to these existential problems lie within our grasp. But such advancements, Bostrom reminds us, must take into consideration the edge cases, the potentially harmful implications of the tools and systems we create: “Going forward,” he says, “one will need to keep more of an eye on potentially negative applications, while maintaining the ability to move forward with all the positives that we want from [biotechnology breakthroughs].”
Innovation Is Resilience
As has become self-evident during the most wide-scale and deadly biosecurity event in the last hundred years, biotechnical innovation is not the light at the end of the tunnel so much as it is the light in the tunnel. As the COVID-19 pandemic spun out of control, the rapid development of safe and effective mRNA vaccines greatly reduced the harm caused by an already devastating virus. As we prepare to tackle future threats to biological life, the kind of moonshot research and development efforts we’ve seen unfold over the past two years will become central to building resilience.