Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Biology's Misuse Potential

Academic journal article Connections : The Quarterly Journal

Biology's Misuse Potential

Article excerpt

The Misuse of Biology

The international community has laid down clear red lines about the misuse of biology. The two biological cornerstones of the rules of war are the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the Geneva Protocol. Together, they prohibit the development, production, stockpiling and use of biological weapons. Signed in 1972 and 1925 respectively, the two treaties have incorporated a mix of legal, diplomatic and political elements into the structure of international norms that are increasingly difficult to dismantle, ignore or override.

Scientific advances in biology and biomedicine are, however, significantly eroding technological barriers to acquiring and using biological weapons. This article describes recent trends in bioscience and analyses their security implications. Three emerging fields of research that have particularly high potential for misuse are then considered in more detail. Continued efforts are required in multilateral, national and scientific spheres to strengthen the red lines. Crucial areas to strengthen are (1) the international legal framework regulating biological weapons, (2) the BWC science and technology review procedure and (3) norms of transparency and public accountability.

Trends in Bioscience

There are four frequently cited security-related trends in the biological sciences:1

1. The increasing pace of advances in bioscience. Rapid advances on multiple fronts within the life sciences pose challenges for tracking and assessing that progress in terms of what it means for biological weapons development. It is difficult to establish which areas to monitor, to anticipate what new combinations of advances will result from progress in multiple fields and to expand the types of expertise required to assess new developments.

2. The increasing convergence of biology and biomedicine with chemistry, engineering, mathematics, computer science and information theory. These developments are, for instance, enabling both the chemical synthesis of biological molecules and the biological synthesis of chemicals. Where components are significantly different from existing biological systems, or where inorganic materials mimic biological function and thereby have biological effect, the mechanisms of action of weapons might not be clearly "biological" or "chemical" - blurring the domains of the Biological and Chemical Weapons Conventions.

3. The increasing diffusion of capacity in biology and biomedicine around the world, particularly in emerging economies such as China and India. There are also increasing international collaborations, not only among researchers in scientifically developed countries and between researchers in developed and developing countries, but among regional networks and increasingly among scientists within developing countries.

4. The increasing opening up of science with new tools like wikis, blogs and microblogs altering how information is gathered, handled, disseminated and accessed; and amateur communities, scientific outreach and educational toys increasing access to hardware for wet work in the life sciences. A large number of multinational suppliers now produce kits containing reagents, enzymes and step-by-step instructions to conduct many of the basic lab techniques life scientists use, including nucleic acid and protein expression, purification, detection and analysis. Commercial services are also available for tasks like sequencing, DNA and protein synthesis, microarray construction, mass spectrometry analysis and others. The availability of smaller, more automated and easier to use bioinstrumentation also facilitates the performance of lab research.

Impact on Bioweapons Potential

The trends in bioscience are making it easier to develop biological weapons. The most recent assessment by the global network of science academies concludes that technological barriers to acquiring and using bioweapons have been significantly eroded over the last five years. …

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