Rewriting Life

Obama Advisers Urge Action Against CRISPR Bioterror Threat

In a letter to the president, advisers say an “exponential” increase in biotechnology has created powerful tools that terrorists could exploit.

Scientific advisers to President Obama warn that the U.S. urgently needs a new biodefense strategy and should regularly brief President-elect Donald Trump on the dangers posed by new technologies like CRISPR, gene therapy, and synthetic DNA, which they say could be coöpted by terrorists.

In a letter to the president, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) urges the creation of a new entity charged with developing a national biodefense strategy within six months. Such a strategy was developed in 2009, but it's carried out by several government agencies in an uncoördinated approach, says Piers Millet, a bioterror expert at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

The council is also urging the president to ask Congress to establish a $2 billion fund to respond to public health emergencies that could be caused by new biotechnologies.

For the past two decades, the government has focused its biodefense efforts on a list of known pathogens—such as anthrax, smallpox, and Ebola—declared by the Department of Health and Human Services and Department of Agriculture to have the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety.” Government-funded research on these pathogens receives special scrutiny, and the National Institutes of Health limits researchers from conducting experiments that could make certain germs, like influenza, more dangerous.

German Red Cross volunteers put on isolation suits while training to respond to Ebola virus in October 2014.

But PCAST members say the recent “exponential” growth of biotechnology has rendered this approach outdated. A new strategy, they say, “must prepare not only for known biological agents, but also for a much wider array of novel and ever-changing biological threats that may be impossible to fully anticipate.”

Specifically, the council argues that synthetic DNA, gene therapy, and genome-editing technologies like CRISPR open up new possibilities for intentional misuse, such as modifying a virus or bacteria to make it resistant to drugs. Synthetic DNA refers to artificial DNA that can be created in a lab, while gene therapy and gene editing are methods to alter the DNA inside living cells. And advances in genomic sequencing are allowing scientists to quickly and cheaply generate the entire readout of an organism’s DNA—information that could potentially be used by terrorists to create a bioweapon.

“If you can get access to the sequence data, that’s really all you need,” says Todd Kuiken, senior research scholar with the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.

It will be nearly impossible to monitor all such experiments, Kuiken says. But a better national surveillance system that includes detailed information about a germ’s DNA, as is suggested in the letter, could tell government officials whether pathogens involved in disease outbreaks have been engineered or modified.

The council members also propose investing in the development of new antibiotic and antiviral drugs against both natural and manmade threats, and setting aside $250 million annually to stockpile vaccines.

But while Kuiken says he sees the letter as a step in the right direction, it primarily addresses traditional biological threats, like viruses and other pathogens. He says it doesn’t do enough to consider more exotic biological attacks, like an insect that has been genetically modified to wipe out the country’s supply of a staple crop.

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German Red Cross volunteers put on isolation suits while training to respond to Ebola virus in October 2014.

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