New global body aims to improve biosecurity and biosafety

17 Jan 2023 | News

As it gets easier to engineer deadly pathogens, the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science wants tighter controls on custom-order DNA companies, and an end to the current ‘checkbox’ approach to lab safety

A new global organisation is trying to prevent dramatic advances in bioscience from unleashing engineered pathogens from the lab, and wants research funders, scientists and journals to help.

The International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science (IBBIS) warns that scientists might be able to order the DNA of dangerous pathogens like smallpox from unregulated companies, and wants much tighter screening of the industry.

“This is going to be the century of biology,” said Piers Millett, IBBIS’s inaugural executive director. “As we begin to be able to interfere with purpose in biological systems at whatever scale, the potential for something going wrong increases as well.”

So far, IBBIS is in an embryonic state, consisting just of Millett, a British researcher who has spent more than a decade helping to implement the Biological Weapons Convention.

But the body should ultimately have a core staff of 3-4 people, and is funded for several years from a series of philanthropic grants. It emerged out of the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a Washington-based global security organisation that focuses on nuclear and biological dangers. IBBIS is currently choosing a permanent location, and should decide on one by Easter.

The NTI set up IBBIS because it believes the world lacks a body trying to improve biological safety and security in civilian science. Since the 1970s, the Biological Weapons Convention has tried to rein in state-led military programmes, but that’s the extent of its coverage. “It's not worrying about what's happening in science and technology,” said Millett.

Although lab leak incidents long predated COVID-19, the pandemic has stoked fears significantly. While some scientists are confident that the virus has natural origin, other researchers argue a lab leak from the Wuhan Institute of Virology remains plausible.

A recent Lancet commission on COVID-19 declared the origins of the virus “unknown,” with the lab leak a plausible cause, and recommended “new global regulations on biosafety to regulate pathogen-related fieldwork and laboratory work”.

The World Economic Forum, the annual get-together of powerful figures in Davos, Switzerland, echoes some of IBBIS’s concerns. “Advances in biotechnologies could enable the creation of pathogens by small groups or even individuals,” it warned in its 2023 horizon-scanning report.

And a recent US budget bill contained a slew of new actions on biosafety and biosecurity. It asked the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy to review federal policies on the creation and use of “enhanced pathogens of pandemic potential”.

Powerful technology

The number one priority for IBBIS, Millett said, is ensuring that all companies offering DNA for sale screen their customers and the genetic material they order, to weed out bad actors or scientists seeking unusual pathogens.

This matters because it’s becoming ever easier for labs to assemble pathogens from ordered DNA, he explained.

A research team in New York first managed to chemically synthesise a virus in 2002. Since then, this ability to “take genetic material and boot up a virus of some description” has spread to tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of scientists, said Millett (although some scientists counter that assembling pathogens from DNA remains very hard, and few labs actually have the ability to do so).

“And that's great, and it should be growing because it's a powerful technology,” he said. “But also, the more people that can do it, the more chance that somebody decides to do something nasty with it.”

Benchtop gene printers that can create DNA in the lab are also a cause for concern. “There remains the possibility that malicious or inattentive actors could used them to cause accidental or deliberate harm,” said Millett. “It is important that we find ways to expand gene synthesis screening efforts to include bench top devices”.

Smallpox in the mail?

One of the scariest prospects is that a scientist could order and reconstruct smallpox, something that Millett thinks is theoretically possible right now. A controversial study in 2016 that reconstructed closely related horsepox showed that there “isn’t anything special” about smallpox that makes it particularly hard to create, said.

If smallpox DNA was ordered from a company that did not screen its orders, “the company won't know what the order, is, they won't know that they've just made something from smallpox,” said Millett.

Owning or shipping parts of smallpox is illegal under export control rules. “Are those effective barriers to somebody that wanted to do it? Probably not,” Millett said.

Some DNA companies have responded to this risk, setting up a voluntary screening system in 2009. But this International Gene Synthesis Consortium (IGSC) is largely made up of North American and European companies, with a handful of Chinese firms too. The rest of the industry is an “unknown unknown,” said Millett. “We don’t know what’s out there”.

In response, IBBIS is trying to create what it calls the Common DNA Sequence Screening Mechanism, which should allow all DNA companies to screen their orders. 

“It could offer them the same sorts of capabilities that IGSC members have had to pay for internally,” he said, or be used by research funders to check potentially risky grant proposals.

Funders and journals

IBBIS is also hoping to work with research funding agencies to firm up their safeguards against potentially risky research. Funding bodies already have principles about biosafety and security, but these are often at an overarching rather than operational level.

“It's then very tricky to define what biosecurity risks might be associated with a specific project,” Millett said.

Journals can also play a role by not publishing information that could be used as an instruction manual for a rogue scientist or terrorist wanting to create a dangerous pathogen. Top tier journals also already have high level policies against this, but “In practice, they need tools to help them unpack that process. And there's a there's a lot of work to be done in that space”.

IBBIS also wants to encourage scientists to move away from what Millett called an “awful checkbox” approach to lab safety.

“Before you do your experiment, you have to do X, Y and Z safety [checks], and quite often it's human nature to try to find the fastest quickest, easiest way to, to complete the minimal requirements to be able to get on with what you're trying to do,” he said.

To counter this routinisation of lab safety checks, psychologists are working on how to create procedures that are actually followed, rather than skirted over, said Millett.

Geopolitical dance

Attempting to win global buy-in for IBBIS is a fraught geopolitical dance, because there are so many political sensitivities around the issue of lab leak pandemics. Beijing has reacted furiously to the charge that a leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology led to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russian government has churned out allegations that US-funded labs were experimenting on bat coronavirus in Ukraine.

This sensitivity even extends to IBBIS’s choice of location. “Where we decided to set up the organisation itself will send messages it has politics with it,” said Millett. Possible locations include Geneva, home of the World Health Organisation, Munich, which hosts an annual security summit, and Singapore, which has a major life sciences industry.

But Millett hopes IBBIS can work at a level somewhat below geopolitics - more at the level of researchers than governments.

“I am fairly confident in this space,” said Millett. “Although the geopolitics are difficult, the technical communities are much more closely aligned,” he said, with Chinese synthetic biologists “very active internationally.”

“We see accidental releases from the most secure, most well-resourced laboratories in the world,” he said. “Nobody has all the answers here. This is what we have to work collectively together on.”

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