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Diplomacy in Action

The Role of Civil Society in Biosecurity


Remarks
Tanya Anthony
Biologist, Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation
University of Milan
Milan, Italy
March 26, 2009

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Good Morning. I’d like to thank Dr. Gismondo for inviting the Department of State to participate in this important conference. The question of maintaining biosafety and biosecurity while permitting critically needed research that is important for advancing knowledge in the life sciences arena is of great interest to us all.

I am Tanya Anthony, a biologist in the Office of Biological Weapons Affairs in the Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation at the U.S. Department of State. Our office has a simple mission: to ensure that all countries live up to their treaties, agreements, and commitments when it comes to countering the threat of biological weapons. While it is simple in its description; it’s incredibly difficult to put into action.

We have a saying in our office – Biology Happens. It took me awhile to understand what this term really means. What is the "biology" that "happens?" There are biological weapons, which are of concern to my office; there is bio-terrorism, which is a critical concern of other offices; there is biosecurity, which is a topic of heightened concern to many of the same offices. Added to that mix, there are emerging infectious diseases, which offer challenges to other offices. And then there is life, which presumably all of us care about. And we want to preferably ensure a long, healthy, non-threatened life. And THAT’s what I want to talk about today: Life, security, and the concept of "Biology Happens." I want to talk about the role of civil society in all of this.

What is meant by the term "civil society"? Wikipedia defines civil society as "the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state's political system) and commercial institutions of the market." It is basically what we have come to know as nongovernmental organizations – and more.

Why would a governmental organization, like the U.S. State Department, be speaking in favor of non-governmental activity? Quite simply, governments cannot do the job alone in trying to counter the vast threat from biological weapons or bioterrorism. We need a double-sided approach from the top down and the bottom up.

Back in 1949, Theodor Rosebury, a biological weapons researcher at what was then called Camp Detrick wrote a book called "Peace or Pestilence." In that book he described the threat of biological weapons research as "science turned upside-down." Sixty years later, I’m still not sure if we’ve righted that boat. Advances in biology as positive as they have been-also have made the ability to cause harm to people, animals or crops even easier. The threat from synthetic biology or the potential dangers of genetic engineering makes the science fiction literature of ten years ago (this is a relative recent period) seem eerily prescient. Biology happens.

In the United States, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity – NSABB –has been concerned that awareness within the life sciences community of the concept of dual use research and its related issues is insufficient and, when awareness exists, the importance of the issue tends to be underappreciated. For obvious reasons, this poses a danger. It may not be an intentional danger of somebody trying to do something illegal. It may be the simple fact of somebody not considering the ramifications of their research; it could simply be an issue of somebody making a mistake. Whatever the source, the danger to all of us is real.

We believe there needs to be a far greater awareness on the potential of dual-use research and the need for ethical considerations on the part of all researchers. This awareness needs to begin early in a scientist’s life; certainly by the time they begin studying at the university but probably in secondary school when a person first starts thinking seriously about a life in the laboratory. Anyone who’s been around children can attest: good habits learned early allow them to be part of your daily routine. Laws and regulations have a place, but what is needed is for bio-ethics and bio-safety to be internalized in a scientist’s heart and mind. And like every other moral standard you want your citizenry to embrace, it’s easier if you begin training early.

But the problem is that the scientific method of hypothesis-experiment-synthesis doesn’t take the question to the end. A scientist may not ask “What happens next? Once the original question is proved, where might somebody with the inappropriate intent or mindset continue on with this experiment and what would be the negative effects on the community?” We need to think about this scenario–can work be exploited by the wrong group or person? This critical thinking needs to be part of the peer review committee’s checklists and part of a scientist’s internal thought process. Legislation might get us halfway there but good habits will save the day.

The United States, like most of the world, is concerned about biosecurity. We understand the impact of the intentional misuse of a pathogen – such as the 2001 mailing of letters laced with anthrax to media outlets and Congressmen in the United States. I remember all too vividly the response of people worried that somehow they had become victims of the attacks, despite their not being even in the same building as the anthrax letters. These are events I am sure none of us wish to see occur anywhere in the world. The fact that the anthrax likely came from a government facility only underscores the necessity of trying to make ALL of our scientists aware of the danger.

In addition to early training, there are other ways bio-awareness can be approached and embraced. Peer-level education is certainly effective, yet much harder to Instill than early training.

Recently I heard someone argue that the most advanced disease surveillance system may be "Twitter" – the blackberry-based micro-blogging instant texting program. I don’t know if I completely buy into that argument, but I do understand the basic premise behind what was being said: the available technology is advancing faster than anyone is able to control. While not necessarily a bad thing, it does reminds us that people-oriented responses to community-based problems likely will remain the quickest and most easily-adopted solutions.

I’d like to give two or three quick examples of what I’m talking about:

Recently a group of young biologists and medical doctors in Libya established their own internet bulletin board for discussions on bio-ethics. They also hosted their own two-day conference on bio-ethics, part of which I had the pleasure of attending. Management was aware of the conference, but the staff did all the work and organizing at a grassroots level. It wasn’t a big conference, but it was a good first step and spurred much follow-on thinking and discussion – including discussion with my office in Washington.

In the United States, a recent issue of Science Magazine illustrated the dangers, and opportunities, of the rising interest in biosecurity and dual-use research. Vanderbilt University in Tennessee and the University of North Carolina set out to make a SARS-like virus using synthetic biology techniques, and “thought about dual use with their Biosafety committees all throughout the process, and ... conducted a half-day workshop before their publication to talk about what should not be included in the final publication and why.”

The goal is not to limit research or stifle academic freedom; it is simply, to quote Hannah Arendt, a renowned political theorist, to "think about what you are doing."

Biology Happens. That is useful and important for all of us. It helps ensure advances in society and civilization that are essential to all of us. What I am arguing for today is a well-grounded, well-considered approach to biology and its potential consequences.

Thank you. I look forward to your thoughts and comments.




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