Columns Indian Scenario

Emerging biological risks: The shadow side of technological progress

Suryesh K Namdeo

Suryesh K Namdeo, DST- Centre for Policy Research (DST-CPR), IISc, Bengaluru, highlights the growing biological risks in the modern era, fuelled by advancements in areas such as synthetic biology, neurotechnology, and artificial intelligence. While these technologies offer promising applications in various fields, they also raise concerns about the potential misuse and accidental release of harmful biological agents.

Emerging biological risks.
Emerging biological risks. 

Amidst the debate surrounding the origin of COVID-19, one point stands clear as crystal: we are living in an era of unprecedented biological risks. As technologies in areas such as synthetic biology, virology, neuroscience, and artificial intelligence advance at breakneck speed, the dangers of misuse or accidental release of harmful biological agents — pathogens, toxins, or genetically modified organisms (GMO) — are greater than ever. While there have always been challenges in ensuring biological safety and security, several new technological developments are now reshaping the entire landscape of biological risks. Comprehending the risk landscape in these areas will be crucial to effectively prevent or mitigate future biological disasters and the possible weaponisation of biological systems and biological data. 

New frontiers and risks in synthetic biology and neurotechnology

Synthetic biology, the scientific field to design, develop or alter biological systems, is now at the forefront of these concerns. This field has created a seismic shift in our bioeconomy, intertwining molecular biology, biochemistry, engineering, and bioinformatics. The outcomes of this scientific revolution have far-reaching implications for gene therapies, biomanufacturing, vaccine development, climate-resilient crops, and advanced biofuels. However, this tremendous promise is accompanied by a spectre of risk. Imagine a world where pathogens can be made more lethal, toxins more potent, and new customised biological weapons can be created to suit malicious intent. The risks arising from advancements in synthetic biology are not limited to humans alone, as agricultural and ecological systems could also be equally threatened, with significant implications. 

Similarly, the field of neuroscience, which has long captured the interest to defence agencies, presents its own unique set of challenges. Brain-computer interface (BCI) technology, which enables a direct connection between the human brain and digital devices, is making remarkable advancements in assisting individuals with specific disabilities. BCIs establish a direct interface between our most intimate organ, the brain, and external digital devices, potentially revolutionising healthcare and other fields. But, alongside this promise, there are real perils to consider. 

These dangers include the risk of physical harm such as infection or tissue damage, the vulnerability of digitally connected devices to cyber-attacks, and the potential misuse of confidential neural data. Similarly, emerging techniques such as deep brain stimulation, neural modulation, and cognitive enhancement, primarily developed to modulate or enhance brain activities for therapeutic purposes, could be exploited to impair brain function and manipulate or implant memories. Furthermore, there are risks associated with the private industry in gaming, entertainment, and therapeutics, with the deployment of untested technologies in the absence of regulatory oversight.

Biological risks in the digital age

Artificial intelligence (AI) is yet another game-changer, collaborating with synthetic biology and biotechnology to amplify our capacity to decode DNA sequences, potentially aiding our fight against deadly diseases. However, this power can also be misused to enhance the lethal potential of pathogens. It is important to remember that an AI program, originally designed for pharmaceutical research, was able to generate over 40,000 potential new toxins within a mere six hours. 

One of the most alarming implications of such technologies is the possibility of creating customised chemical or biological weapons based on genetic or physiological data. Also, the utilisation of AI in biometrics could result in surveillance and discrimination of individuals based on a wide range of biological traits.

Moreover, the increasing reliance on digital systems for the collection, storage, and analysis of biological data introduces a whole new array of cyber-biosecurity threats. This is particularly critical since the biological data gathered in research laboratories and hospitals are inherently personal and often contain sensitive information. Whether it involves patient records from hospitals, data from clinical trials, or even genomic sequence data, the risk of cyber-attacks is ever-present. This reality was starkly demonstrated by the significant cyber-attack on AIIMS, New Delhi earlier this year. 

Cyber-attacks can also disrupt or compromise vital equipment and biological systems in hospitals and research facilities. Malicious actors with access to institutional digital systems may tamper with experimental data, modify research protocols, or interfere with data analysis algorithms, resulting in misleading or incorrect outcomes that can have profound consequences for the research conducted within the institute. 

The path forward: managing biological risks in the era of democratisation of biology

In the rapidly evolving world of scientific advancements, the democratisation of biological research has led to an increase in Do-It-Yourself biology and small bio-manufacturing units. While this progress holds great promise, it also presents a paradox, as these very tools have the potential to trigger unforeseen catastrophes. 

The accessibility of advanced biological technologies to a broader range of individuals and organisations is undoubtedly empowering and could foster groundbreaking innovations in various fields. However, it also introduces significant concerns regarding the responsible use and potential misapplication of these powerful tools. Striking the right balance between promoting innovation and ensuring safety will be crucial in navigating this complex landscape of democratised biology. 

Some steps to manage such risks:

  • Biological safety training and security practices: The current lack of comprehensive training on ethics, safety, and security among scientists is concerning. And addressing this challenge necessitates collective action at all levels. Scientists need thorough training in biological safety and security practices to ensure responsible conduct. Institutions should develop and enforce robust safety protocols, leveraging frameworks such as the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines. Regulatory bodies must establish guidelines that keep pace with the rapid technological progress, ensuring effective oversight and regulation of emerging biological technologies. 
  • Audits and risk assessments: Regular audits and risk assessments are essential to ensuring compliance and identifying vulnerabilities. Several countries, such as the US, the UK and Australia, have developed national strategies to prevent, manage, and mitigate biological risks. The US has also established a National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, which advises the government on matters related to biological security and dual-use research. However, many countries in the Global South, including India, lack such strategies and institutional structures, highlighting a critical gap that demands immediate attention. 
  • Multilateral frameworks: On the global stage, reinforcing multilateral frameworks like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is of paramount importance to orchestrate a unified response to biological risks. In this context, the promotion and support of the WHO Global guidance framework for the responsible use of life sciences, along with relevant provisions of the Global Health Security Agenda, could play crucial roles. These international frameworks can facilitate collaboration, information sharing, and the establishment of guidelines and protocols to address the challenges posed by emerging biological technologies.
  • One Health’ approach: Further, adopting a One Health’ approach, which recognises the interconnectedness of humans, animals, and our shared environment, will enable the development of holistic strategies for managing these risks. 
  • Facilitating dialogue among stakeholders: Equally important is the cultivation of platforms that facilitate dialogue among scientists, policymakers, and industry stakeholders. For instance, engaging with the International Gene Synthesis Consortium, an industry-led group of DNA synthesis companies that screens gene orders to minimise the risk of DNA misuse, could be instrumental.

Despite the formidable challenges in managing biological risks, they are not insurmountable. The path to success lies in collective efforts that encompass improved education, robust institutional and regulatory mechanisms, strengthened international frameworks, and open dialogue. Through these endeavours, we can move towards a world that is significantly safer from biological threats.