Synthetic Biology as a Global Weapon in the United States
What is in a ‘revolution’? The revolutions of the eighteenth century in Europe targeted the overthrowing of an ancient feudal system, in place of a democratic political system. The industrial revolution, beginning in Britain in the late eighteenth century and globalising in the nineteenth century, envisioned a mechanisation of world production. Yet political scientists and officials have identified a new current revolution, the ‘Synthetic Biology Revolution’, which has and will have resounding effects on the global agenda. This is a turning point in history, as this ‘Revolution’ utilises living organisms, our own internal genetic code, to uphold the timeless principle of national security. This article looks at the United States’ recent announcements and measures in synthetic and programmable biology, and what this may reveal about the security and balance of power in foreign policy.
On September 14 2022, Jake Sullivan , President Biden’s National Security Advisor, announced that the US government expects a biotechnology plan to play an ‘outsized importance over the coming decade’. This came after senior security officials gathered at a whitehouse summit on biotechnology and manufacturing, releasing a strategy to strengthen ‘programmable biology and defence’. The key points of the strategy paper included the bolstering of federal investment in R+D, the ‘fostering’ of a biological data ecosystem whilst adhering to privacy conduct, and expanding domestic biotechnology production processes and increasing proto-type efforts.
The recent CHIPS Science Act published in October also aims to bolster the US’ competition in bio-technology. Interestingly, the Biden Administration added Chinese genomics companies to its list of Chinese military affiliated companies, which encompasses companies that are both private and state actors. The Act will invest $52 billion to ‘restore US leadership in semiconductor R+D and reduce our reliance on foreign produced ships’.
Evidently, bio-technology and programming is at the top of the US agenda. The response to COVID-19 shows that the ‘bio-economy’, defined as economic activities related to the invention and use of biological processes, combined with public sector leadership, offers the potential for improved biosecurity, through surveillance and environmental monitoring. Yet, with regards to foreign policy, the US’ stance is an indication of the heightened need for security, isolation and the aim of projecting itself as a world power in the face of overseas threat.
Dr Tara O’Toole, executive vice president at IN-Q-TEL, states that ‘China is pursuing a very aggressive strategy to become the world leader in biotechnology...which is essential to its [economic competition]’. O’Toole addresses the need to maintain scientific collaboration with China, as depicted through the Chinese companies mentioned in the CHIPS Act, yet acknowledges that ‘we are in a war for talent with China’. Synthetic biology development in the US is therefore not just an economic and scientific tool, but a mechanism for maintaining superpower rivalry in a system where American scientists are being invited to countries to carry out high-risk research. The US has recognised the national security implications of this, resulting in the progress of translational infrastructure.
Despite the recent measures, the concern for secretive US ‘bio-geopolitics’ was addressed as early as 2019 by Dan Steinbock, Research Director at the India, China and America Institute. Steinbock discussed the Pentagon program ‘Insect Allies’ funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which relies on gene editing and hopes to infect insects
with modified viruses, to make US crops more resilient. However, international scientists suggested such programs are foils for new bio-weapon programs, which violate the Biological Weapons Convention. Despite top-level Russian requests for ‘joint inspections’ of ‘Insect Allies’ which had presumably been a factor in the viral diseases in Georgia, the budget provided by DARPA in 2020 reached to $45 million, and characterised the ‘biosecurity program’, which now extends to Asia, as necessary in ‘competing against Chinese influence’.
Synthetic biology and programming has masked ulterior geopolitical motives of security, competition and the pursuit of ‘leadership’ on the world stage.
Therefore, Sullivan’s claim indicates more than scientific cooperation. His earlier comments on CBS News, regarding the escalating rhetoric of Russians’ use of chemical and biological weapons, suggests that bio-technology and programming is a distinctly geopolitical mechanism to guard against an increasingly militarily and economically stable world.