Synthetic biology and its implications for national security

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : BTWC 1972

Mains level : Paper 3- Security challenges associated with synthetic biology

Against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic, the article discusses the national security threat emanating from biological weapons.

Synthetic biology

  • Synthetic biology is a revolutionary technology that can help us manipulate biological organisms and processes for human betterment, especially in treating diseases, by re-engineering cells.
  •  In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense categorised synthetic biology as one of the six ‘disruptive basic research areas’.
  • Unlike the nuclear domain, the fields of biology or synthetic biology are not regulated internationally despite growing military interest in it.

Risks involved

  • There is the possibility of deliberate misuse of synthetic biology.
  • 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 are another concern.
  • There has been very little focus on threats emanating from biological sources as compared to the focus on nuclear weapons.
  • This is despite the fact that a well-orchestrated biological attack could have serious implications.
  • This was before synthetic biology came into play.
  • A well-planned attack using highly infectious pathogens synthetically engineered in a lab could be disastrous.
  • It would be difficult to pin responsibility on a specific actor if the incubation period is high,

BTWC: An inadequate mechanism for regulation

  • Despite being the weapon of mass destruction (WMD) safety and security attention given to bio-weapons is not at par with nuclear and chemical weapons.
  • There is an international convention and an implementing body for both nuclear and chemical weapons.
  • However, for 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.
  • Article 1 of the BTWC bans bio-weapons but research for medical and bio-defence purposes are allowed.
  • While this is understandable, the problem is that there is a thin line between bio-defence research and bio-weapons research. 
  • 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.

Concerns for India

  • India is at a uniquely disadvantaged position in this area given poor disease surveillance, insufficient coordination among various government departments dealing with biosecurity issues, and the pathetic state of the healthcare system.
  • India has multiple institutions dealing with biosafety and biosecurity threats but there is no coordination among them.
  • Given the rising risk of diseases of zoonotic origin, the traditional ministry-wise separation might not be useful.
  •  India, with its porous borders and ill-trained border control institutions, will remain vulnerable to pathogens or dangerous biological organisms.

Way forward

  • Pandemics have also highlighted that the traditional distinction at the international institutional level between biological weapons (a field governed by the BTWC) and diseases (governed by BTWC) may not be useful anymore.
  • There needs to be more conversation between health specialists and bio-weapons/defence specialists.
  • 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.

Consider the question “How synthetic biology poses security challenges for India and the rest of the world? Suggest the measures to deal with this challenge.” 

Conclusion

Covid-19 should serve as a wake-up call to give BTWC more teeth in dealing with the bio-weapons with a suitable institutional mechanism.

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