Synthetic Biology and the Chem/Bio Threat

05.30.17 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Synthetic biology, a set of technologies related to the design and fabrication of biological systems, poses an emerging hazard but also provides the tools to mitigate that hazard, according to a new DoD report to Congress on defense against chemical and biological (CB) weapons.

The new report “assesses DoD’s overall readiness to fight and win in a CB warfare environment.”

“Rapid advancements in technology are making it easier for an adversary, whether State or non-State, to develop chemical and biological weapons. This includes threats from non-State actor groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and emerging threats like the misuse of synthetic biology.”

Although the technologies that comprise synthetic biology represent a growing threat, “we cannot look to constrain the technologies themselves as a means of risk mitigation, or we risk stalling our own research and development (R&D) programs that use those technologies to develop life-saving countermeasures.”

“Synthetic biology is critically important to the development of medical countermeasures (MCMs), detection technologies, materials for protective equipment, and other technologies with applicability to CBR [chemical / biological / radiological] defense,” the report said.

“The Department must be positioned to both leverage synthetic biology opportunities as well as address the potential for nefarious use of biotechnology, such as enhancing select agents or the engineering of novel pathogens.”

In fact, “the majority of CB [defense] programs utilize some aspect of synthetic biology. Current examples include the development of Filovirus vaccines and therapeutics, the development of the recombinant plague vaccine, novel approaches to overcome antibiotic resistance, and the rapid development of monoclonal antibody therapies.”

See Department of Defense 2017 Annual Report to Congress on Chemical and Biological Defense Program, March 2017, released under the Freedom of Information Act on May 25, 2017.

The Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) acquired nearly 200,000 smallpox vaccines and more than 500,000 anthrax vaccines, DoD reported. The military services distributed and administered them “as needed to support operations.”

The Program has also contributed to development of medical countermeasures against other CB threats.

“The CBDP-supported Ebola vaccine was granted Breakthrough Product Status by the FDA and European Medicines Agency (EMA),” the DoD report said. “This vaccine is the first to have demonstrated efficacy against Ebola in humans.”

However, funding constraints limit such progress. “The combination of evolving CB threats, reduced budgets, and uncertain fiscal futures forces the CBDP to focus its limited resources to address the highest priorities and greatest risks.” (See, relatedly, “Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts Trouble Bioterrorism Experts” by Emily Baumgaertner, New York Times, May 28.)

The DoD report emphasized that “No individuals have been used as subjects of any CB agent tests in the United States since 1975.”

“Human biological agent testing ended on November 25, 1969, and human chemical agent testing ended on July 25, 1975. The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs (OASD(HA)) continues to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify and locate previous human test subjects so they can receive appropriate attention.”