Innovation’s Darker Future: Biosecurity, Technologies of Mass Empowerment, and the Constitution

Brookings Institution, December 8, 2010

“Using gene-splicing equipment available online and other common laboratory equipment and materials, a molecular biology graduate student undertakes a secret project to recreate the smallpox virus. Not content merely to bring back an extinct virus to which the general population is now largely naïve, he uses public source material to enhance the virus’s lethality, enabling it to infect even those whom the government rushes to immunize. His activities raise no eyebrows at his university lab, where synthesizing and modifying complex genomes is even more commonplace and mundane by 2025 than it is today. While time-consuming, the task is not especially difficult. And when he finishes, he infects himself and, just as symptoms begin to emerge, he proceeds to have close contact with as many people from as many possible walks of life as he can in a short time. He then kills himself before becoming ill and is buried by his grieving family with neither they nor the authorities having any idea of his infection.

The outbreak begins just shy of two weeks later and seems to come from everywhere at once. Because of the virus’s long incubation period, it has spread far by the time the disease first manifests itself. Initial efforts to immunize swaths of the population prove of limited utility because of the perpetrator’s manipulations of the viral genome. Even efforts to identify the perpetrator require many months of forensic effort. In the meantime, authorities have no idea whether the country—and quickly the world—has just suffered an attack by a rogue state, a terrorist group, or a lone individual. Dozens of groups around the world claim responsibility for the attack, several of them plausibly.

The government responds on many levels: It moves aggressively to quarantine those infected with the virus, detaining large numbers of people in the process. It launches a major surveillance effort against the enormous number of people with access to gene synthesis equipment and the capacity to modify viral genomes in an effort to identify future threats from within American and foreign labs. It attempts to restrict access to information and publications about the synthesis and manipulation of pathogenic organisms—suddenly classifying large amounts of previously public literature and blocking publication of journal articles that it regards as high-risk. It requires that gene synthesis equipment electronically monitor its own use, report on attempts to construct sequences of concern to the government, and create an audit trail of all synthesis activity. And it asks scientists all over the world to report on one another when they see behaviors that raise concerns. Each of these steps produces significant controversy and each, in different ways, faces legal challenge.

To read the full paper, click here.

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