CRISPR and other powerful new biotechnologies have made science that was once constrained to fancy high-end labs increasingly accessible. This is, of course, mostly a good thing. But it also means that those with nefarious intentions have easier access to the same technologies, too.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Bill Gates warned that the global community has not taken the threat of bioterrorism quite seriously enough. He urged governments and private organisations to make “substantial investments” to prepare for potential bioterrorism attacks.
“What preparedness will look like for intentionally caused things, that needs to be discussed,” he said during a panel last week. “It’s very hard to rate the probability of bioterrorism, but the potential damage is very, very huge.”
Gates’ warning came on the heels of an announcement that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will join governments from Germany, Japan and Norway in creating a Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations to develop new vaccines and strategies for responding to disease outbreaks. The Gates Foundation already spends sizable amounts of cash on research aimed at eliminating diseases, like malaria.
Gates is not the first to raise concerns about bioterrorism threats recently. In November, a new report by the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology advised President Obama to revamp the country’s biodefense strategies in response to advanced technologies like CRISPR.
Rapid advancement in biotechnology, the council wrote, “holds serious potential for destructive use by both states and technically-competent individuals with access to modern laboratory facilities.”
“Molecular biologists, microbiologists, and virologists can look ahead and anticipate that the nature of biological threats will change substantially over the coming years — in ways both predictable and unpredictable,” the report read. “The US Government’s past ways of thinking and organising to meet biological threats need to change to reflect and address this rapidly-developing landscape.”
Last year, a top national security official called gene-editing a weapon of mass destruction alongside nuclear detonation, chemical weapons and cruise missiles.
Tools like CRISPR could potentially be used to destroy a nation’s food supply, to interfere with a person’s biology, or to boost the virulence of a virus so that it might better spread. (Such scenarios are, in fact, the premise of a new J.Lo-produced sci-fi show called C.R.I.S.P.R.)
For now, thankfully, these particular terrors are all just hypotheticals. But if we want to keep it that way, officials might do well take Gates’ warning seriously.