Friday, June 22, 2018

DoD Ranks Top Threats From Synthetic Biology

npr  |  New genetic tools are making it easier and cheaper to engineer viruses and bacteria, and a report commissioned by the Department of Defense has now ranked the top threats posed by the rapidly advancing field of "synthetic biology."

One of the biggest concerns is the ability to recreate known viruses from scratch in the lab. That means a lab could make a deadly virus that is normally kept under lock and key, such as smallpox.

"Right now, recreating pretty much any virus can be done relatively easily. It requires a certain amount of expertise and resources and knowledge," says Michael Imperiale, a microbiologist at the University of Michigan who chaired the committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to assess the state of synthetic biology and offer advice to defense officials.

As an example of what's possible, Imperiale pointed to the recent and controversial creation of horsepox, a cousin of smallpox, in a Canadian laboratory. "These things can now be done," he said.
Another top danger listed in the report, which was released Tuesday, is making existing bacteria or viruses more dangerous. That could happen, by, say, giving them antibiotic resistance or altering them so that they produce toxins or evade vaccines.

And one scenario pondered by the experts is the creation of microbes that would produce harmful biochemicals in humans while living on the skin or in the gut. This possibility, the report notes, "is of high concern because its novelty challenges potential mitigation options." Public health officials might not even recognize that they were witnessing a biological attack if the dangerous material was delivered to victims in such an unusual way.

All in all, the committee examined about a dozen different synthetic biology technologies that could be potentially misused. For each, they considered how likely it was to be usable as a weapon, how much expertise or resources would be needed, and how well governments would be able to recognize and manage an attack.