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An Ambitious Goal: Reducing Biothreats and Making Bioweapons Obsolete

In a report released this week, Making Bioweapons Obsolete: A Summary of Workshop Discussions, Sandia National Laboratories and the Council on Strategic Risks outline the discussion and recommendations that came out of the Making Bioweapons Obsolete workshop hosted last fall at Sandia.

The one-day meeting brought together government, national laboratories, academia, industry, policy and entrepreneur communities to address the challenges of mitigating and eliminating the risks bioweapons present. The workshop was the first in a planned series.

Drawing on the cross-discipline expertise of the working group, organizers aim to better understand the threat and how technology can both increase and mitigate the risk. The report focuses on identifying solutions that offer the biggest return and influencing national leadership to provide attention and resources to the issue and engage with academia and industry.

The report highlights a wide range of considerations that must be addressed. The report:

  • Provides insights on key technological trends.
  • Raises questions of the data and information access required for rapidly characterizing and responding to biological attacks and outbreaks.
  • Explores market and supply chain dynamics in depth.
  • Points to significant U.S. government capacities that can be used and expanded, including its vast testing and evaluation infrastructure.
  • Highlights the need for coordinated outreach and education to policymakers, in particular by academic and private sector experts.
  • Drives home the critical importance of U.S. leadership.
“Making Bioweapons Obsolete” workshop participants gather at Sandia’s California site. (Photo by Dino Vournas)

Workshop participants shared a variety of views regarding the deterrence of bioweapon attacks. There was some divergence in views on what degree attribution and, in particular, rapid attribution is important for deterring biological attacks. Some believed that even without strong attribution capabilities, rapid and effective response capabilities may be sufficient to deter biological attacks, as such attacks would become a relatively ineffective method of meeting the perpetrator’s intended political objectives. Considerations for treaty limitations and resource allocation for attribution are also considered in the discussion.

The group discussed several specific tools and technologies relevant to future bioweapons threats including: rapid enzyme discovery, synthetic biology, high throughput gene synthesis, genetic analysis of large populations, and implications of advances in artificial intelligence.

There is a window now to shape the emerging bioeconomy in terms of factors like control, market concentration versus distribution, and protection of individual rights. Furthermore, there are worrying signs of declining U.S. leadership in biotech and biosecurity, including rising influence by China, various European countries, and others.

A united, ambitious national vision of making bioweapons obsolete will help in meeting the urgency of the moment and in materially altering the landscape of biological threats. It must be clearly articulated that a national effort toward making bioweapons obsolete will protect America, reduce the nation’s vulnerabilities, and increase its competitiveness. Meeting this ambition will take commitment, time, resources, and perhaps most important, leadership.

The workshop is the beginning of an important conversation in tackling the ambitious issue of eliminating or significantly reducing biothreats, explained Andy McIlroy, associate laboratory director of Integrated Security Solutions at Sandia.

“With increased commitment, time, resources and leadership, we can make further strides in meeting this bold target,” McIlroy said. “I hope that we can continue this discussion to create a united, national vision that meets the urgency of the moment.”

Future workshops will continue the wide-ranging discussion focused on engaging in a national dialogue and promoting better public-private collaboration in this grand mission. Sessions will focus on man-made threats from weapons of mass destruction, as well as the risks posed by advances in technology.

For more on council’s program on making bioweapons obsolete visit the Janne E. Nolan Center on Strategic Weapons.

Making Bioweapons Obsolete: A Summary of Workshop Discussions (.pdf)

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