Tuesday, June 15th, 2021 -- The recent COVID-19 pandemic has been at the forefront of everyone’s minds, with fears of bioterrorism circulating online. One question that has long been unanswered is the origin of the novel coronavirus that caused this pandemic. The theory that it originated from a lab-leak in Wuhan has had great media exposure, especially after a group of scientists and the Biden administration demanded further investigations into its origins. This unproven theory has, however, reinvigorated and reawakened discussions about bioterrorism. Is bioterrorism really a risk of biotechnological innovation? Or is it simply a side effect that cannot be controlled?
Emerging technologies in the field of biotechnology have allowed COVID-19 vaccines to be mass-created in such short periods of time. Vaccine production in record times is not the only advancement recently made in biotechnology; improvements in gene editing and 3-D bioprinting, just to name a few, promise to revolutionize our quality of life. As technology improves, its side effects also become more prevalent. With this, scientists face a great moral dilemma. Can they decide what risks are worth taking and which are not? Is it safe to continue pursuing biotechnological progress despite the risks? Do they have the authority to decide what risks the world is willing to accept? How can scientists, the people whose livelihoods surround exploring new uses of biotechnology, decide which discoveries carry too much risk, without any bias?
Bioterrorism is defined as a deliberate release of germs or biological substances for harm. There are three main categories of biological agents that could be used as weapons: bacteria, viruses, and toxins. Biotechnology uses living organisms for research, using techniques such as breeding new organisms or altering genetic information to create trailblazing products. Innovations in biotechnology have great potential to improve our current quality of life, accessibility of medications, and treatment options for diseases. However, biotechnology also has great potential for harm.
It is impossible to predict what technology will be used for. This uncertainty is the origin of the risks associated with biotechnological research. As science and technology improves, accessibility to the equipment needed for biotechnological research also becomes easier. Experiments that could only be done in labs are now making their way into homes and garages of science fanatics. CRISPR gene editing no longer needs a state-of-the-art lab. Instead, DIY at-home kits can now be purchased. This greater accessibility allows anyone to do anything with live organisms, paving the way for dangerous bioterrorists. However, such technological advancements become useless if they cannot be used. New technology, therefore, should not be banned from being shared with the rest of the population. But without strict regulations, there is no way of knowing how people are using new biotechnology. But how can one decide between life-saving innovations and potential safety from bioterrorism? And is halting biotechnological progress even enough to protect us from bioterrorism? There are too many questions to be answered within this debate, none of which have any good answers.
Now that the world has experienced what may have been accidental bioterrorism, the risks are being re-evaluated. Biotechnology is important and innovation is even more so; thousands of diseases currently have no cure and constant research is what provides the world with hope. Despite its uses, breakthroughs still carry significant risks and the question still stands: are biotechnological advancements worth the risk of bioterrorism?
(2021) Why the Wuhan lab-leak origin theory of the COVID-19 virus is being taken more seriously | CBC News. In: CBCnews. https://www.cbc.ca/news/health/covid-19-wuhan-lab-leak-theory-1.6042038. Accessed 15 Jun 2021
(2021) Bioterrorism. In: Bioterrorism | Ready.gov. https://www.ready.gov/Bioterrorism. Accessed 16 Jun 2021
Bioterrorism: the release of toxic biological agents, including bacteria, viruses, and germs, to purposely destroy or cause harm to people, livestock, crops, etc.
CRISPR: a DNA/gene-editing tool, originally found in bacteria cells, that allows DNA to be cut at specific locations, allowing scientists to alter or replace that segment of DNA.