An article published on August 24 in Foreign Policy Magazine* highlights the explosive effects of synthetic biology in defence. Contamination by the Zika virus illustrates the risks of a pandemic, as long as the enemy is not known! How can we consider implementing deterrence in this field where the signs of malevolence are indecipherable? What means should be deployed to decode an attack and identify the adversary? These are all challenges that require national and international coordination today, which has barely begun.
Ihere are many national security challenges in the United States, but too often our attention is focused exclusively on terrorist threats, geopolitics, and cyber attacks.
As the country confronts the arrival of the Zika virus and considers travel bans to Miami, it is time to have a thorough debate on the threats posed by biology.
Certainly, our lives are more and more embedded in the cyber world. The supercomputer you carry is a synthesizer of all knowledge (photography, art, music, and world data). It is also a kind of X-ray machine that can provide insights into the deepest recesses of our personal lives: our preferences, choices, intimate moments, health, shopping, and indeed our character.
But the impact of all this data is very little compared to what is being prepared on the road to the biological revolution. Biotechnological developments will determine the course of the 21st century. Ebola, Zika and the emergence of super-antibiotic-resistant bacteria are early signals of the threats ahead. Most scientists believe that biological technologies will introduce the most radical breakthroughs - both practical and ethical - into our daily lives.
The risks of synthetic biology are greater than the dangers of the atomic age.
A main element of the biological revolution will be its impact on security in the broad sense of the term, as well as on the more specific field of military activity. Both of these concerns are part of the work being done by various laboratories around the world, including here in the United States at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, where I contribute as senior fellow.
Some of the most promising progress at JHU APL and elsewhere has been made in six areas: brain-machine connections that would allow the use of disconnected limbs; rapid identification of diseases in response to natural or artificial epidemics; artificial intelligence for autonomous attack drones; improved human performance, including significantly reduced sleep requirements, increased mental acuity; improved dander and "armor" skin; and finally the use of the CRISPR -Case edition, which is now very easy to use to optimize genomes (grafts of new capabilities).
Staying within moral bounds
The most important question is how to properly pursue this research while remaining within the legal, moral and political limits that our society must define when it is so poorly informed. Scientists are like soldiers on patrol in unmarked terrain, which is sometimes illuminated by lightning, revealing steeper and more dangerous ground ahead.
The United States needs to develop a coherent bio-strategy because national biological research efforts will have international implications. International diplomacy, which has structured the law of the sea, is examining possible frameworks for regulating the cyberworld, and could serve as a useful model. A major challenge for this diplomacy is that any nation or transnational organization, or even any individual, will soon have access - if they do not already have it - to biological tools that allow the manipulation of living organisms.
The rise of low-cost synthetic biology technologies, the falling cost of DNA sequencing, and the dissemination of knowledge through the Internet are creating the conditions for a biological event. We know the explosion of terrible contaminations as was the case with the Spanish flu almost a century ago (1918). According to some estimates, about 40% of the world population has been infected, with a mortality rate of 10 to 20%. Extrapolated to today's world population, this would be equivalent to more than 400 million deaths.
400 million dead at a stroke: what kind of deterrent against bio-terror?
Most worrying would be the possibility of rogue nations or violent transnational groups seizing these technologies and using them to create biological weapons of mass destruction.
Johns Hopkins University researcher Josh Wolfe noted Natural biological weapons are limited by the characteristics of agents that cannot be packaged into an arsenal. But synthetic biology constructs can lend themselves to weapons manufacture".
Josh Wolfe focuses on the ability to quickly detect synthetic biological threats, analyze them, and, perhaps most importantly, attribute them - that is, identify which lab or nation is the source. Wolfe's research could provide governments with sufficient information about biological attacks to enable them to develop coherent responses-and thus lay the foundation for an international deterrence regime. (Deterring terrorist organizations from using such biological weapons if they were able to build or obtain them would be a much more difficult task).
There are three key elements to establishing vigilance against bio-terror. First, we need an international approach to limit the proliferation of highly dangerous technologies. This is a difficult point because the clues capable of revealing aggressive intentions do not exist, unlike nuclear weapons, which require specific facilities. (Editor's note: Academic laboratories have built the genomes of synthetic polyo and Spanish flu viruses from scratch, without being suspected of bio-terrorism).
Secondly, cooperation must be organised in the event of contagion or a transnational biological threat. Third, the U.S. government's interagency process must become more responsive to both scientific advances and security challenges. At present, federal policy on such work is organized in silos, making it difficult to respond quickly or effectively. Some of the work is done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or the Department of Homeland Security, and other responsibilities and capacities are assigned to the Department of Health and Human Services. At the same time, the Department of Defense has developed its own fairly complex capability. Without strong coordination, the country today remains at significant risk.
The militarization of biology is coming...
Finally, this vigilance requires a powerful level of public-private cooperation. Much of the technological progress will come from biotech companies located in particular around Boston. They need to be involved in this security challenge with government and academic centres such as Johns Hopkins, without unduly stifling innovation.
Models in the world of cybersecurity exist. In addition, it is imperative to open a wider debate on the future impact of biological change. As citizens, we spend far too much time focusing on information and cybertechnology. The militarization of biology is coming fast. And our ability to control this process - or not - will determine our fate.
James Stavridis, Admiral of the U.S. Navy, NATO Commander and Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Text translated by Dorothée Browaeys
* Founded forty years ago by Samuel Huntington, Foreign Policy Magazine monitors the main global issues. In 2013, this media was bought by Graham Holdings Company, formerly the Washington Post Company.