Human DNA helix strand abstract conceptual illustration

Bioengineering threats rated as a top biosecurity risk

Image credit: Igor Stevanovic - Dreamstime

A global team of experts has put together a list of the most urgent biosecurity threats, with bioengineering threats such as DNA-based surveillance among the top-ranked concerns.

The exercise was facilitated by the Centre for Existential Risk (CSER) and the BioRISC project, both based at the University of Cambridge. A group of 41 academics and figures from industry and government submitted 450 questions facing the UK government regarding biological security. These were then debated, voted on and ranked to define the 80 most urgent questions.

The questions were sorted into six categories: bioengineering; communication and behaviour; disease threats; governance and policy; invasive alien species, and securing biological materials and securing against misuse.

The line-up – published in PLOS ONE – includes questions around whether data from social media platforms should be used to help detect early signs of emerging pathogens; custom DNA synthesis; threats from “human-engineered agents”, and how to incorporate biosecurity into science education.

“In the year before the pandemic, the UK was ranked second in the world for global health security by the Global Health Security Index – a confidence underpinned by its 2018 Biological Security Strategy,” said CSER’s Dr Luke Kemp, who led the research. “Clearly, improvements are needed  and not just to be ready for a future Covid-19-like crisis.

“We need to plan for a biosecure future that could see anything from brain-altering bioweapons and mass surveillance through DNA databases to low-carbon clothes produced by microorganisms. Many of these seem to lie in the realm of science fiction, but they do not. Such capabilities in bioengineering could prove even more impactful, for better or worse, than the current pandemic.”

An international team anonymously scored the 80 issues to produce a priority list of 20 challenges. These were divided into the most immediate (likely to be faced within the next five years); those on a five-to-10-year timeline, and those a decade or further in the future.

Kemp describes these 20 threats as ranging from the “promising to the petrifying”.

One of the most immediate threats is surveillance via DNA databases. The Chinese government has already used blood sampling to target the Uighur population, Kemp said, and commercial DNA databases could become the next frontier of “surveillance capitalism”.

“The possibility of using genetic databases for mass surveillance will only grow in coming years, particularly with the rise of new tracking and monitoring methods, powers and apps during the Covid-19 response.”

A high-ranked issue for the longer term was malicious uses of neurochemistry. According to the team of experts, advances in bioengineering and neuroscience could lead to beneficial new drugs but also new weapons.

“Imagine a world in which law enforcement uses drugs to placate and control crowds, greatly diminishing the promise of non-violent protest movements on climate and social justice,” Kemp said. “Regulation is critical at both the international and national level. We need to ensure that new insights into the human brain are not weaponised for either the army or police force.”

Kemp added: “The world, not just the UK, needs a thoughtful, transparent and evidence-based way of identifying emerging issues in biosecurity and bioengineering. Whether it be a new flu pandemic, new bioweapons, or new ways to sequester carbon, forewarned is forearmed.”

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