In 2018, scientists in Canada successfully synthesized horsepox —a virus related to smallpox, one of the greatest scourges the world has ever faced—demonstrating how viral synthesis could threaten global disease eradication efforts. The experiment illustrated a significant problem: no globally accepted mechanisms exist for identifying risks associated with experiments that synthesize new, dangerous, engineered, or eradicated agents – or those that could enhance transmissibility and virulence of pathogens with pandemic potential, like influenza.
There is no question that advances in genomics, synthetic biology, and microbiology are essential for a safer, healthier, and more secure society. New technologies are vital for achieving health security and sustainable development. At the same time, advances such as low-cost deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) synthesis and widespread access to gene editing tools are making it easier, faster, and cheaper for a broader array of actors to create and engineer dangerous biological agents. Combined with global trends in trade, travel, and terrorism, the risk of a deliberate or accidental high-consequence biological event is increasing.
To keep up with the technological pace, governments – in cooperation with research funders, academic institutions, and investors – need to rapidly identify concerns and provide effective oversight to reduce the potential for accidental or deliberate release of engineered agents. Although many countries probably have not engaged in dual-use research with especially dangerous pathogens, it is important today that all countries have systems in place to oversee such work.
The Global Health Security (GHS) Index shows that countries are not prioritizing oversight of these types of emerging biological risks. No country requires providers of synthetic DNA to screen their orders to prevent sharing of materials with questionable parties. Fewer than 5% of countries demonstrate oversight for dual-use research, including for research with especially dangerous pathogens and toxins or pathogens with pandemic potential. Additionally, 92% of countries show no evidence of requiring security checks for personnel with access to dangerous biological materials or toxins, which increases the potential for insider threats. These gaps are dangerous and must be urgently addressed.