For Good Biodefense Community Dialogue is Needed

Technology is amazing, particularly advances in biotechnology. Producing everything from insulin to drought-resistant crops, biotechnology is making the world a safer place for many people. Much like nuclear technology, alongside the advances in medical technology, there also comes the risk that biotechnology could be used in more nefarious ways. This reality is well known in Washington, as leaders have been pushing for more resources for biodefense efforts to ensure our nation is ready to respond to an outbreak, whether it be natural or the result of bioterrorism.  However, the public still remains largely in the dark about the reality of the situation or what they can do about it. 

This general silence is certainly understandable.  There is no need to raise the alarm about a general increase in risk while there is no immediate threat. An unnecessary alarm bell could create panic and fear when it's not really warranted, and that can cost our economy and people’s wellbeing. At the same time, there is a cost that comes with total silence on the subject, as the most effective response is one that involves community preparedness at the lowest levels. Consider the case of a naturally occurring outbreak: the best response would involve individuals taking steps to protect themselves & remaining calm in order to slow the spread of a disease, while the government directs resources to the highest risk populations.  So we must engage in a meaningful dialogue to include basic planning at a community level.

In theory, every city, county, and state should have their own biodefense plan and should work with federal agencies to make sure they are all on the same page. Additionally, community members should be loosely aware of what these plans are. This is important because people need to know that a plan is in place so that they don’t panic if something happens. Despite the need, most cities don’t have a plan, and neither do most states.  All are largely depending on the federal agencies to have a plan and swoop in to save the day, but that seems to be a bit overly optimistic. From Ebola to drug-resistant tuberculosis, and from the latest strain of influenza all the way to diseases like SARS, the potential threats out there are many. It is hard to keep track of them all everywhere they are, even for large federal agencies. Therefore having awareness and basic planning and preparation at a local level is one key way to manage those potential threats.

The threat is becoming more acute as it is becoming easier than ever for individuals to assemble genomes and modify organisms. An entire DIY biology subculture has emerged where people work out of home labs creating glowing yeasts and even frogs. Have you heard of The Odin? Well, they sell CRISPR kits (a gene editing technology) which anyone can buy online. One researcher even performed an experiment where he purchased genes online from separate vendors and then pieced them together to successfully create the horsepox virus (a relative of the Smallpox virus). The message is clear: the only thing between modern society and the scourge of a new smallpox virus outbreak is nothing other than ill intent, moderate financing, and a little bit of know-how. While most DNA services screen their requests, advances in DNA printing will soon lower the bar to entry for would-be terrorists trying to access deadly pathogens.

With this reality over the backdrop of a general lack of public awareness, I think it is time for people to ask their local representatives at the state and local level “Do we have a biodefense plan?”.

Benjamin Carollo is a former Military Intelligence analyst and current Graduate Student Studying Biosecurity & Biodefense at the University of Maryland, University College. Ideas expressed are his own, and do not imply endorsement of the DoD.