Looking back at  NCT Virtual Hub

SynBio: The Threat of Designer Pathogens

NCT Virtual Hub – August “SynBio: the Threat of Designer Pathogens” took place on Tuesday, 3 August 2021, highlighting the importance of addressing the threats stemming from synthetic biology, such as designer pathogens, to global security.

The virtual conference, attended by participants from 21 countries, opened with remarks from Ms. Anna Paternnosto, Vice-President of CBRNe society, and BG (Ret.) William King, Former Commander of the US Army 20th CBRNE Command, who co-chaired the event. The first and second panels were composed of experts in key roles in their organizations which analyze, enforce, and respond to issues and challenges in the field of SynBio. In our first panel four speakers took the floor: Dr. Diane DiEuliis Ph.D, Senior Research fellow at National Defense University; Dr. Ada Bacetty, Department Chief for the Biological Threat Reduction Program of DoD’s Cooperative Threat Reduction program at the DTRA; Dr. Margaret E. Kosal, Associate Professor at Georgia Institute of Technology; and Dr. James Giordano, Professor in the Departments of Neurology and Biochemistry, Georgetown University.

The panelists addressed various questions regarding security challenges stemming from synthetic biology, mainly in the areas of governance, research and development, and preparedness. Addressing the first question of our session regarding the main threats coming from SynBio and how to deal with them, Dr. DiEuliis mentioned that a complete reconstruction of viruses from scratch is possible, making effective use of the biological tools in order to design high value chemicals as well. Even if the latter can have positive effects for society, in the meantime it is imperative that a serious discussion about bio-security must take place. Dr. Bacetty stressed the importance of the international partnership on this matter, especially that of the global scientific community. All organizations need to cooperate with each other as accountability and oversight become more complex. This way, one can find a lot of means to deal with the emerging issue of terrorist actors accessing pathogens as well.

Dr. Kosal stressed that Syn-Bio is not only a single thing as it is often presented as it has become “a catch-all phrase.” A new framework must be established taking into account the difference of threats under this category, which are not equal. In the prospect that Syn-Bio may challenge the dominance of nuclear weapons regarding strategic stability, Dr. Kosal agreed that this could complicate geopolitics and it is a potential threat to consider in the future. Continuing with Dr. Giordano, he mentioned the importance of following a holistic approach towards the issue, including the research community and enterprises. A cooperative and competitive threat reduction approach is the main thing to target at, engaging in the meantime the social sciences as well. As he emphasized, a multi-national discourse is important in order a synthetic approach to come out of this.

In the questions to follow, our speakers shared their expertise on the topics of practical approaches to the issue and how to prevent malicious use of this technology. According to Dr. DiEuliis the technology is rapidly advancing, making it difficult to follow. There are of course a lot of challenges to deal with such as the issue of attribution at the international stage, the role of OPCW and also lessons learned from the current pandemic. Additionally, Dr. Kosal stressed the importance of successful intelligence. As new emerging technologies become available, their malicious use also becomes much more difficult to control. The current arms control regimes are only a tool but not the final solution to every problem. Dr. Giordano also stressed out the importance of international surveillance, partnership and restoring trust in the level of communications. At the same time, understanding both the dynamics with your competitors and the capabilities of allies is crucial. Lastly, Dr. Bacetty highlighted the importance of a robust definition of bio-weapons and examining dual use capabilities. Specific and reliable risk vulnerability assessments can also be used in this regard.

The second panel kicked off with discussions welcoming Dr. Christopher Houchens, Director of the Division of CBRN Medical Countermeasures, BARDA, Dr. Christian Hassell, Acting Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, DHS, Prof. Jean-Claude Manuguerra, Head of Structure Environment and Infectious risks, Institut Pasteur, France, and Dr. Gregory Koblentz, Biodefence expert, George Mason University. The discussion started as the panelists were asked to reflect on the aspects of the democratization of synthetic biology technologies. From the European perspective, Prof. Manuguerra noted that the integration of SynBio as a dual use technology has direct effects on biosafety and biosecurity. Prof. Manuguerra stressed that in France, as well as in the EU, threats to biosafety and biosecurity are in fact a source of concern due to the relatively low requirement in skills and financial resources. On the same note, Dr. Koblentz highlighted that in his view, the DIY community poses less of a threat, but rather, the increasing investments of the private sector in advanced synthetic biology technologies increases the potential of dual research to occur. Nonetheless, Dr. Hassell stressed that these technologies can and should be explored and developed while engaging with the DIY community with the aim of identifying suspicious activities and further developing ideas. Complementary to Dr. Hassell, Dr. Houchens concluded that despite the concerns made regarding the private industry’s use of such advanced technologies, there is a strong connection and reliance between the government and industry as a source that drives innovation. According to Dr. Houchens, crowd sourcing to a network of innovators can assist governmental agencies to complete their mission while responding to events such as infectious diseases.

The discussion then revolved around the topic of the intersection between public health security and synthetic biology as an enabling technology. According to Dr. Koblentz, progress has been made in the field, however, some gaps remain as exposed by the ongoing COVID-19. In order to address those gaps, Dr. Hassell and Dr. Koblentz stressed that focusing on inter-agency and cross-sectoral cooperation is necessary, while setting priorities and identifying threats are of importance. From Prof. Manuguerra’s view, one measure through which biological/pandemic threats can be identified and reduced is by ensuring that appropriate systems are in place, and that it is the ethical duty of institutions that such systems are placed in the right hands (i.e. operated by familiar institutions).

Finally, the last round of discussions continued with another question regarding current and emerging projects and developments in the field, their impact on biosafety and biosecurity, and the application of lessons we currently learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to enhance those. For Prof. Manuguerra, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed that the functioning of existing health regulation has not been satisfactory under current circumstances. For that reason, medical countermeasures and containment at the source are imperative. Nonetheless, since containment at the source can be challenging, it therefore requires strong cooperation between both military and civil intelligence and the exchange of information. Similarly, Dr. Houchens stressed that multi-level cooperation across stakeholders on the surveillance of such events can provide a better perspective and ideas of what we are dealing with. In addition, Dr. Houchens highlighted the advantage brought by evolving technologies such as SynBio, as they allow for the development of vaccines and medical countermeasures more rapidly. In Dr. Hassell and Dr. Koblentz’s view, efforts should be directed towards raising the awareness and focusing on education across the public with regards to these threats, with the end-goal of gaining the public’s trust. As such, they highlighted that communication is key at times where forces such as misinformation and disinformation play a key role in constructing the public’s opinion with regards to medical countermeasures, such as vaccines. As Dr. Hassell pointed out, in order to be able to work efficiently across those boundaries, cross-cultural understanding is instrumental to the process.

Concluding our panel, our distinguished speakers highlighted several key areas. First, that rapid and dramatic steps are needed to be taken in order to ensure that global security policies advance in tandem with technological developments, such as in the world of bioengineering and synthetic biology. Second, that critical questions must be addressed in the field of synthetic biology and bioengineering, such as how do we maintain innovation momentum? How do we address fears related to Syn-bio technologies? And how do we sustain investments in the area.  The 3-hour event provided the CBRNe community with the opportunity to network, engage in discussions, and critically reflect on the challenges, threats and developments in the rapidly evolving field of synthetic biology technologies and designer pathogens

We would like to sincerely thank all our delegates and speakers as well as our sponsors: ThermoFisher, Bruker, Eurosatory. 

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