- COVID-19 has made it clear that our traditional imagination of national security is no longer credible, as global security arrangements were insufficient in dealing with the current crisis.
- The growth of exponential technologies such as synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology is bound to change the theory and practice of national security. COVID-19 has quickened the inevitable.
- Hence, national security studies need to undergo a paradigm shift by rethinking the sources of insecurity, to begin with.
SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY AND RELATED CONCERNS
- Synthetic biology is a revolutionary technology which can help us manipulate biological organisms and processes for human betterment, especially in treating diseases, by re-engineering cells.
- Among the exponential technologies shaping the world today, the biological revolution is of exceptional importance.
- The rapid rise of synthetic biology in the last two decades and its still-to-be-understood implications haven’t received sufficient attention from the security studies or policy communities.
- Recent pandemic of COVID-19 has further highlighted the biosecurity concerns of synthetic biology.
- The argument is not that COVID-19 originated in a lab, but that dangerous bioweapons can come from labs.
RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH SYNTHETIC BIOLOGY
Synthetic biology is a double-edged sword, as there are many risks associated with the technology which must be addressed before it becomes widely accessible.
- There is the possibility of deliberate misuse of the technology with its easy access in coming times.
- Hence, there is a need to carefully review, especially in the wake of the pandemic, the biosecurity systems in place where such technologies are in use.
Accidental leaks of experimental pathogens:
- Insufficiently trained staff, inadequately safeguarded facilities, and lack of proper protocols could all be behind such leaks.
- But the reality is that there has been very little focus on threats emanating from biological sources.
- Unlike the nuclear domain, the fields of biology or synthetic biology are not regulated internationally despite growing military interest in synthetic biology applications and their potential misuse.
- Hence, a well-orchestrated biological attack could have serious implications even though it would be less ‘spectacular’ since its effects are less immediate.
Mass destruction capabilities:
- The ‘weapon of mass destruction’ (WMD) capability of bio-weapons has been long recognised but very little has been done by the international community about it.
- Of the three types of WMD, nuclear weapons have received the maximum safety and security attention given the treaty and institutional arrangements associated with it. Chemical weapons come next.
- However, when it comes to bio-weapons, all we have is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 with no implementing body.
- The BTWC does not have a verification clause, nor does it have clearly laid down rules and procedures to guide research in this field.
- While bio-weapons are banned, research for medical and bio-defence purposes are allowed.
LACK OF GLOBAL CONSENT FOR DEVISING GLOBAL GUIDELINES
- The pharmaceutical industry vehemently opposes any intrusive inspection regime on the research involving synthetic biology.
- An Ad Hoc Group set up in 1994 to negotiate a Protocol to enhance the transparency of treaty-relevant biological facilities and activities to help deter violations of the BTWC submitted a report at the Fifth BTWC Review Conference in 2001 but was not accepted by the member states. The initiative has since been shelved.
- Pandemics have also highlighted that the traditional distinction at the international institutional level between biological weapons (a field governed by the BTWC) and diseases (a domain under the World Health Organization) may not be useful anymore.
INDIA UNIQUELY UNPREPARED
- India is at a uniquely disadvantaged position compared to the more developed countries in this area given:
- poor disease surveillance,
- insufficient coordination among various government departments dealing with biosecurity issues,
- the pathetic state of the healthcare system.
- Despite having multiple institutions dealing with biosafety and biosecurity threats , these institutes lack coordination among them.
- For instance, implementation of biosafety guidelines is the responsibility of the Science and Technology Ministry and the Environment Ministry. However, labs dealing with biological research are set up under the Indian Council of Medical Research and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, which are under the Ministries of Health and Agriculture, respectively.
- This highlights two issues pertaining directly to biosecurity:
- One, the multiplicity of bodies and ministers makes coordination difficult, especially in the absence of an empowered coordinating body.
- Two, given the rising risk of diseases of zoonotic origin, the traditional ministry-wise separation might not be useful.
- Also with its porous borders and ill-trained border control institutions, it is uncertain whether India is prepared for defending against pathogens or dangerous biological organisms or agents arriving from abroad.
- COVID-19 should serve as a wake-up call for countries against the emanating threat of synthetic biology.
- There is a need for more conversation between health specialists and bio-weapons/defence specialists to devise global policies against future threats.
- The new organisms, biological parts and devices that can be created or existing natural life forms that can be redesigned should ideally be the subject matter for scientists to concern themselves with or for ethicists to debate.
- The November 2021 BTWC review conference must take stock of the advances in the field, address the thinning line between biotechnology research and bio-weapons research, and consider international measures for monitoring and verification.
- Countries need to take cues from the U.S. Department of Defense which in 2014, has categorised synthetic biology as one of the six ‘disruptive basic research areas’ even though linkage between national security and synthetic biology is yet to become an agenda item in mainstream national security debates.