Although there is always the potential for nonstate actors—ISIS, for example— to develop crude biological weapons, a more recent focus regarding biothreats has aimed at emerging technology.6
The scientific capabilities and tacit knowledge of bioterrorism will ultimately affect the bioweapon, whether it be the selection of organism, the crude design or complex dissemination method, etc. The Amerithrax attacks gave us a small window into the capabilities of a nefarious individual with significant skills and knowledge in bacteria. Recent biotech advances have added a new spin to biothreats.
For example, the biotech industry is rapidly growing, bringing new technologies like synthetic biology, digital-to-biological converters, and gene-editing tools like CRISPR-Cas9 to the masses.7
CRISPR can effortlessly be purchased online for $150, making the process significantly easier.8
A tool that can easily edit DNA like a pair of scissors with a copy and paste has the potential to prevent mosquitoes from transmitting malaria and to remove chronic conditions from humans. Gene editing also has the capacity for gene drive, which allows genetic traits to be quickly passed down through generations. The potential for CRISPR is endless, and yet it has many scientists worried. The ease of use and access, not to mention very limited federal oversight, could have unintended effects due to a garage-biohacker’s tinkering around with DNA. Jennifer Doudna, PhD, one of the inventors of CRISPR, expressed her worry about this very act, noting, “I think there’s sort of the potential for unintended consequences of gene editing in people for clinical use. How would you ever do the kinds of experiments that you might want to do to ensure safety? ” 9
Although CRISPR has made gene editing easier and more accessible, there also exists the hazard of dual-use research of concern (DURC), like that of gain-of-function research (GoF). DURC is life sciences research that, despite its good intentions, has the capacity to be directly misapplied to pose a threat to humans, animals, the environment, agriculture, etc. The recent news that a Canadian research team reconstituted horsepox with little specialized knowledge, mail-ordered DNA fragments, and $100,000 highlights the DURC debate.10
Although the research has yet to be published, the concern is not only that this process could be applied to reconstitute smallpox but also that the research was not flagged in the review process for risks related to dual-use research. The horsepox experiment points out the possibility that such work can be done and that even at the most structured level, proper risk review is not being done.11
Moreover, such an experiment raises concerns for lowering the barriers to experiments using smallpox and normalizing DURC in a manner that could be dangerous.
GoF is one of the most common examples of DURC. Experiments with GoF involve increasing the virulence, transmissibility, or host range of pathogens. Although this research is performed to better understand current diseases and what it would take for them to evolve to have more pandemic potential, this research inherently worries many in the research community because of the risk of accidental release or intentional misuse by a nefarious actor. This first became an issue in 2012 when 2 research teams genetically modified H5N1 viruses to transmit efficiently between mammalian hosts to show the genetic mutation needed for the virus to sustain human-to-human transmission.12
The concern over this research led to a federal moratorium’s halting funding for such experimentation until guidance could be developed.13