Double Helix, Dual-Use: Securing Synthetic Biological Laboratories

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Written by Halia Czosnek

In July 2017, researchers in Portland, Oregon attempted to modify a human embryo to correct defective genes that are linked to a genetic disease. This experiment was possible with CRISPR-Cas9 technology, a powerful gene editing tool that is sold online for a few hundred dollars. These experiments will grow in complexity and number as CRISPR and other gene editing technology becomes ubiquitous: the market for CRISPR is projected to be worth more than $1.5 billion by 2022.

While CRISPR technology has the potential to improve life and encourage learning, it also poses a significant global security challenge. Former U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described gene manipulation as a threat similar to that posed by “weapons of mass destruction and proliferation.” But as I argue in a recent white paper the danger of CRISPR lies not in the technology itself, but rather its use in poorly secured laboratories worldwide.

Bioterrorism is rightfully a growing concern for international security, however the accidental release of a modified pathogen from a laboratory is far more likely, given the number of laboratories conducting gene modification experiments, specifically on harmful pathogens. The consequences of a security breach from one of these under-secured CRISPR labs could be equally as catastrophic as a bioterror attack.

In 2011, two scientists in the United States and the Netherlands used gene editing technology to modify Avian flu (H5N1) so that the virus was easily transmitted through the air, rather than through bodily fluids, increasing the fatality rate of the virus beyond the typical rate of 60 percent. Imagine if their experiments moved beyond the walls of a controlled laboratory setting.

Documented security breaches in the United States have involved pathogens like anthrax, yet the United States is recognized as home to the safest and most secure laboratories in the world. If these kinds of accidents can happen in the United States, then what does laboratory safety look like in other countries? Waiting for accidents to happen anywhere in the world will put the entire international community behind the eight ball: we might already be facing a pandemic of epic proportions. And possibly a pandemic involving a never-encountered modified pathogen.

The lack of international laboratory security protocols highlights the need for a gold standard in laboratory security. In some labs, personnel were trained online without ever handling the pathogens that they would work with in a laboratory. While the United States’ system is imperfect, padlocked fridges are the highest form of laboratory security in many countries that do not have the expertise or finances to secure high-risk labs. The United States can use its documented experience from its reported laboratory failures to help standardize physical laboratory security and training protocols.

The United States should use the Cold War-era Nunn-Lugar nuclear safety program as a model for securing laboratories in partner countries. The Nunn-Lugar program has expanded since the 1990s to include the Cooperative Biological Engagement Program (CBE), which handles biological security concerns. CBE personnel could partner with other governments to physically secure government laboratories to limit the potential of pathogens escaping from controlled spaces. An expanded CBE program could provide standardized, in-person training to scientists working in laboratories capable of editing viruses.

The United States could provide both on-site training and publish security standards and laboratory manuals for partner countries. Laboratory workers trained through the expanded Nunn-Lugar program can train future employees using the standardized protocols and manuals. This training framework creates an efficient, enduring, and cost effective training program that enhances laboratory security.

If funding is unavailable to physically secure laboratories, creating standardized laboratory safety procedures is the next best step to prevent an accidental leak of a genetically modified pathogen into the outside environment. The framework would be most easily implemented in government laboratories as foreign governments could communicate with the United States throughout program implementation. One weakness of Nunn-Lugar is the issue of pathogen modification occurring in private laboratories as these labs are subject to less government regulation.

The expanded Nunn-Lugar Global Program is a necessary and economical first step to prevent the accidental or intentional misuse of genetically-modified pathogens. CRISPR is not the threat. The real threat arises when CRISPR is used to modify pathogens in under-secured laboratories worldwide. The United States can use its existing model to mitigate this risk in laboratories both at home and abroad. Rather than necessity being the mother of invention, proactivity must supersede necessity.

About the author: Halia Czosnek is a recent graduate from the College of William and Mary where she graduated Summa cum Laude with a BA (Honors) in Government. She is also a research assistant with the TRIP project, and a former fellow and current researcher with the Project on International Peace and Security (PIPS) at William and Mary. She presented her PIPS white paper, Double Helix, Dual-Use: Securing Synthetic Biological Laboratories at the Carnegie Center for International Peace in Washington, DC in April, 2017.