Coverage of some of the key sessions from the Biosecurity Conference at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) 2011, which occurred in Washington DC on June 29-30, can be found in the FAS Biosecurity Blog.
A View from the Hill: A Conversation on Global Biodefense and Biosecurity
Jim Greenwood, the President of BIO, opened the first biosecurity discussion, which focused on congressional views on domestic biodefense initiatives, international efforts to improve biosecurity, and the implementation of policies to respond to these challenges.
Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), emphasized the need for better cooperation between the private sector and the U.S. Government in view of the recent threat from H1N1 avian influenza. He called for better knowledge and definition of the threat and stated that the challenge is to nurture better cooperation between both sides.
Tom Inglesby, Director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, agreed that accountability and response is a key issue within the Government, especially in response to recent threats.
Former Senator Jim Talent (R-MO), the former co-chair of the WMD Commission, stated that the next biggest threat will be from biological weapons because they are relatively easy to stockpile and use. He called for sensible decision-making structure within the Government to cope with this threat.
Theresa Tam, Director-General of the Center for Emergency Preparedness and Response, Public Health Canada, had a different approach to looking at threats. She said that threats from emerging pathogens may threaten us and could arise at anytime. The ‘Human Pathogen and Toxin Act,” introduced in 2009, expands the Agency’s ability to reduce the risks posed by human pathogens and toxins by standardizing controls over activities involving these agents, whether they are imported or domestically acquired. She also said that there should be more emphasis on coping with the damage from multiple events occurring at the same time, for example, the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear accident that occurred earlier this year in Japan.
The panel called for better international collaboration because most countries wait for the U.S. to act first. Even though countries prefer to share better preparedness and medical countermeasures, poor funding prevents better collaboration. Partnering with countries such as Israel, which seriously funds medical countermeasure projects, was suggested as an option. Because most pathogens exist in the nature, the evolution of the infectious disease threat is harder to control than the prevention of a nuclear disaster. The panel concluded that it is vital to respond effectively to biological threats in order to deter attack.
Managing Technological Innovation in the New Era
One session discussed how technological innovations could serve to prevent, identify, or respond to emerging natural or man-made biological threats, including those that might arise from advances in the life sciences.
Dr. Alan Rudolph, the director of the Chemical and Biological Technologies Directorate at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA), started the session by pointing out the difficulty of assessing the security implications of such a rapidly moving field of science. He quoted Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism, who said, “Those who have knowledge don’t predict. Those who predict don’t have knowledge.” He emphasized the role of new diagnostic technologies such as ‘clinical trials in a test tube’ and the ongoing development of basic research. Life Sciences is moving rapidly and the greater recognition of the intersection between health security and defense creates new challenges.
Antonietta Gatti of the Italian Institute of Technology’s Project on Nanoecotoxicology warned that nanoparticles could be used as a new, cheap form of terrorism. Yet, she noted, “there are no procedures set up to protect humans, animals, and the environment from nanoparticle threats.” Todd Peterson, Vice President of Synthetic Biology R&D at Life Technologies, Inc., defined synthetic biology as “engineering life for useful purposes.” Synthetic biology is a rapidly growing field with a broad range of applications in industry. To prevent the misuse of synthetic biology, the DNA synthesis industry has voluntarily established automated and expert screening of gene-length synthesis orders in order to detect potentially harmful sequences.
Edward You of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) noted that a new partnership between industry and academia is improving the management of biosecurity risks. For example, the FBI set up the Synthetic Biology Tripwire Initiative in partnership with the U.S. synthetic biology industry to report suspicious orders for pathogenic DNA sequences to the law enforcement authorities. This initiative has benefited both the FBI and industry by helping to prevent the misuse of synthetic biology for harmful purposes.
Managing Global Challenges in an Evolving Threat Environment
Representatives from industry, NGO’s, and the government gathered to discuss the multiple challenges facing the implementation of global biosecurity practices and examine the threats facing different regions. Gerald Epstein, Director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) started this session on the assessment of threats facing different regions, standardization of regulations, improving coordination of transportation, and dispensing and delivery of medical countermeasures across borders.
Alexander Garza, Assistant Secretary for Health Affairs in the Department of Homeland Security, pointed out the difficulty of confronting risk in the modern world. He quoted from Nassim N. Taleb’s book, The Black Swan, “We don’t understand the world as well as we think we do and tend to be fooled by false patterns, mistake luck for skills (the fooled by randomness effect), overestimate knowledge about rare events (Black Swans), as well as human understanding, something that has been getting worse with the increase in complexity”.
Risk = Threat x Vulnerability x Consequence
Threat may be decreased by an early-warning system of potential threats, increasing safety in laboratories, and better partnership around technologies. Vulnerability can be decreased by better health care, public health, and disease surveillance systems. Garza concluded that threat, vulnerability, and consequence have to be reduced to decrease risk in the modern world.
Ren Salerno of Sandia National Laboratories called for other nations to take responsibility for recognizing and reporting outbreak of diseases and move away from a model of relying on U.S funding and solutions for cooperative engagement.
Eric Rose, President and Chief Executive Officer, Siga Technologies, Inc., stated that, after Bioshield’s enactment and less than 4 years after the creation of BARDA, they are moving closer to commercializing the drug ST-246®, a smallpox antiviral. Although smallpox was eradicated 30 years ago, it is still a threat and could easily be used as a bioterror agent. With an expected fatality rate in the range of 30%, it has a mortality profile 15 times higher than the 1918 flu pandemic. Rose also said that limited funding will leave a void in the development of the medical countermeasures needed to keep U.S safe from a bioterror attack.
Matthew Botos, of the Illinois Science and Technology Coalition, called for better food defense threat assessment in order to prevent food-related illness and injury. He mentioned the recent food poisoning outbreak in Germany as an example of the impact such diseases have on humans and the economy.
The panel concluded by calling for universal adherence to the National Strategy For Countering Biological Threats, which highlights the need for transparent reporting of disease events to support BWC compliance.
Improving Global Biosurveillance
Representatives from the biotech industry, government, and academic Institutions examined the efforts to improve biosurveillance efforts around the world. Evan Skowronski, the senior scientist at the Tahoe Research Institute, talked about his work in developing countries to build scientific capability to detect diseases detrimental to public health. Skowronski explained the difficulty of practicing high-level science in places without reliable electricity or even access to reagents or replacement parts for equipment.
Skowronski also pointed out that researchers are woefully ignorant of the global biodiversity of microbes that might threaten us. For example, the library of dengue fever virus genomic sequences does not include any from the Philippines, where there are 90,000 cases of dengue each year. This means that some the simpler lab tests for dengue based on gene sequences from other regions might miss a strain from the Philippines that has suddenly appeared somewhere else. Skowronski agreed that the biodiversity problem is temporary because machines that can cheaply perform the full genome sequencing of organisms will be available later in this decade. He predicted that there will be no more pandemics, as biotechnology advances, since it will be possible to identify new diseases and devise therapeutic responses to them quickly.
Closing Keynote Address: The Role of the BWC in a Biotech-Driven World
Final Day’s Program of 2011 BIO International Convention ended with the Role of the BWC in a Biotech-Driven World, by Ambassador Paul van den Ijssel, President of the 2011 BWC Review Conference. He focused on the goals and objectives of the upcoming BWC Review Conference, and how its valuable convening function can best be used to enhance global biosecurity in light of new advances in the life sciences, such as synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and other convergent technologies. He noted the global spread of biotechnology to countries such as India, which is believed to have the world’s fastest growing industry, as proof that the debate is about providing assistance and not the “have and have nots.” He said it would be his job to take existing ideologies out of the debate and forge a more “forward-looking” agenda for the December conference that would enable nations to find common ground on the subject.