Bedfellows at the Biosecurity Board

In Uncategorized on November 18, 2006 at 3:21 am

2006-11-17 | How US science’s nouveau riche bioweapons constituency is flexing its muscle to carve up safety and security rules.

Karl Rove would probably be impressed by the brand of government “oversight” being developed by the National Science Advisory Board on Biosecurity (NSABB). http://www.biosecurityboard.gov Like a Bush administration investigation of itself, on last Wednesday (October 25th) an NSABB working group moved to creatively thwart its charge. Although it was formed to recommend biosecurity rules to govern the new field of synthetic biology, the working group will instead assault regulation of a wide range of biodefense and biotech risks.

The working group’s outlook is more political than technical. Its science is a veneer that disguises the maturing political muscle of a constituency of bioscientists that has become accustomed, perhaps addicted, to lavish federal biodefense funding. This constituency is challenging the regulations that apply to it and has allied itself with those seeking to block effective regulation of the emerging field of synthetic biology. As such, it will pose a major long-term obstacle bringing under control the wild proliferation of dangerous biodefense research in the US.

The working group’s politics deftly unite two distinct scientific camps under the same banner. One camp is synthetic biology, a burgeoning, dangerous science that currently is an unregulated Wild West free-for-all, a condition that many practitioners believe is desirable. The working group also tapped a deep vein of discontent among its other camp, infectious disease researchers. Specifically, the researchers that receive biodefense handouts; but who resent being required to comply with the Select Agent Rule, a law designed to protect the public from bioterrorism.

In biodefense, the synthetic biologists (who use DNA like building blocks) and the infectious disease bug jockeys (who work with full-blown dangerous microbes) usually don’t get along very well. The synthetic crowd scoffs at the bug jockey’s focus on vaccines and pills for specific microbes, dubbing the narrow approach a “Maginot Line” after the inflexible border defenses that failed to protect France from German invasion in 1940. Genetic tweaks and new bugs, the synthetic biologists say, can outflank these countermeasures. A subtext, of course, is that synthetic biologists think they should get a bigger piece of the biodefense pork pie from the federal budget.

The bug jockeys, on the other hand, argue that the synthetic guys are a bunch of nerdy engineers whose science of using genes like tinker toys is young and unproven. The bug jockeys claim that they can deliver here and now, whereas the synthetic folks are still in scientific diapers, working out basic principles of their discipline. Perhaps interesting down the road, the bug jockeys say, but what counts is the present. (Neither group questions the wisdom of the government bankrolling tens of billions of dollars in biodefense research at hundreds of places across the country.)

What unites these two quarrelling factions? Apart from the fact that their science is potentially dangerous, the two share an appetite for tax dollars and a disdain for federal security rules. The latter point has led to an NSABB marriage of convenience: The synthetic biologists want to shake pressure for new regulation while the bug jockeys want to assassinate the existing Select Agent Rule, enabling both to do as they please with less “interference” from Uncle Sam.

Thus was born a politico-scientific Coalition of the Willing that aims to invade federal rulemaking to take down what they perceive as a threat: biosecurity legislation designed to protect the public. By hijacking the NSABB, they are on well on their way to Mission Accomplished. And because the current political leadership of the US holds itself to its own unique (nonbinding) standards and sees little reason to reign in dual-use research for safety, security, or treaty compliance reasons, the NSABB working group probably won’t have to waterboard anybody in the US government – unless there are radical changes in officialdom.

The specifics of the working group recommendations? They include unusual and dubious arguments about taxonomy, gene sequences, and law. These have far broader implications than the working group apparently paused to contemplate. More on that later.
From an unsurprising “finding” that microbial taxonomy systems are imperfect, the working group leaps to the illogical conclusion that this is justification to eviscerate government regulation of (but not cash handouts for) research with biological weapons agents. That’s quite a jump. Considering the recommendations carefully, however, it is clear that the working group’s intellectual shortcomings – its recommendations don’t logically follow from its findings – stem from an attempt to paper over the distinctions between the need for synthetic biology regulation and the need for the select agent rule.

Synthetic biology may be new; but challenges to taxonomic conventional wisdom are not. Evolution happens. Genes turn up in new places, by the hand of man and through the many ways that biodiversity moves itself. The novel possibilities of synthetic biology are thus not without precedent in nature, in the sense that taxonomy is always encountering the difficult-to-classify and is currently incapable of fully describing naturally occurring diversity.

No matter what is cooked up in a synthetic biology lab, that doesn’t change the fact that there are diseases out there that can kill you. Scientists know what most of them are, and can reasonably define them. Hence the need for the Select Agent Rule is unaltered by the powers to manipulate, even create, dangerous forms of life (and nucleic acids) that is possibly offered by synthetic biology.

But don’t tell the NSABB working group, because that would get in the way of its political agenda. That the working group’s logic doesn’t parse is unsurprising in view of the fact its science is merely a pretext to table a pre-emptive attack on regulation of synthetic biology and the extant Select Agent Rule. For good measure, the working group adds a pork barrel recommendation to loosen controls on smallpox virus and DNA that suffers from the same logical flaws as the other recommendations.

And, in an easy to overlook item, the working group suggests that biosafety of synthetic DNA can be handled by the failed genetic engineering oversight system known as the NIH Guidelines, designed three decades ago and declining ever since. It’s another failure of the logic to parse. The synthetic biologists literally argue that their science antiquates biodefense before it like the Nazi blitzkrieg through Belgium outmoded the Maginot Line. But then they go on to reason that, for biosafety, the scientific equivalent of the Treaty of Versailles (NIH Guidelines) is sufficient to keep the peace!

In the long run, this quagmire of faulty scientific-legal verbiage won’t stop the real risks of biodefense proliferation. It would take an intelligence failure of a very different type than Iraq in order for NSABB to be allowed to thwart its charge and debilitate proper federal oversight of dual-use research. But that may be exactly what NSABB does. Certainly that’s the way that its working group on synthetic biology is heading. And if it is an indicator of how biodefense researchers, a sort of bioscience nouveau riche, intend to flex their political muscle, then we may be in for many more dangerous years before the wild excesses of the biodefense boom are brought under control.

The Sunshine Project http://www.sunshine-project.org and in our Links section

From the UN observer


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