What is Biosecurity?
Advances in gene-editing technology and synthetic biology have made it possible to alter or introduce new capabilities into the genomes of nearly any organism. We now stand at the threshold of an era where novel treatments and cures for conditions that have defied all efforts for generations are within our grasp. Unfortunately, the same technologies that can be used to accomplish this incredible purpose can also be used to engineer or recreate deadly viruses and bacteria. Whether the introduction of these concerning organisms is intentional or accidental, the damage done upon their entry into our society could be catastrophic.
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Biosecurity or Biosafety?
Biosecurity describes the procedures and safeguards individuals, research labs, companies, and nations put in place to protect humans, plants, animals, and the environment from exposure, whether intentional or not, to organisms that can cause them harm. To accomplish this without hindering legitimate scientific study and commercial use of these potential pathogens or their parts is a sophisticated process that must balance the legitimate needs of stakeholders with the possibility of access by those who would use the materials for nefarious purposes. DNA screening programs that ensure the integrity of customers and identify concerning genetic sequences that could be used for malevolent purposes are an essential part of biosecurity.
Biosecurity differs from biosafety, which focuses on providing protection from biohazards. We are all aware of the biosafety devices - the biohazard suits and personal protection equipment (PPE) - used by healthcare workers as they treat patients with viruses such as SARS-CoV-2 and Ebola. We’ve seen that when a new virus such as SARS-CoV-2 arrives on the scene, those on the front lines in healthcare must take biosafety precautions to prevent themselves from getting infected while epidemiologists focus on biosecurity measures such as temperature checks and screening at airports, that can be implemented to contain the spread of the virus.
Biosecurity, much like cybersecurity, makes use of proactive processes and procedures to ideally prevent a problem before it occurs. The goal of biosecurity is to keep known pathogens, whether man-made or naturally occurring, safely away from populations susceptible to their effect. While SARS-CoV-2 is a naturally occurring pathogen, it’s virulence and global reach make the extent of the damage and human suffering that result from unprotected exposure to a pathogen all too clear.
Stakeholders in synthetic biology are in a position where they should screen for known pathogens and work to keep them from reaching bad actors or from being accidentally released. For this reason, it is important for companies, governments, and academic institutions worldwide to undertake the cost and complications involved with effective biosecurity by screening for threats, identifying threats, and cooperating with law enforcement to stop or minimize any risk associated with potential threats. As we see today in the midst of a pandemic, the cost of proactive biosecurity programs that prevent or minimize a threat is pennies on the dollar when compared to the cost of dealing with threats after the fact on a global scale.
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