In Other Words

The Biosecurity of Nations

International Security, Vol. 28, No. 3, Winter 2003-04, Cambridge Biological threats, whether from transnational terrorist networks or from naturally occurring diseases such as SARS, have become a central "homeland security" concern in the United States. Some observers argue that globalization worsens the threat of bioterrorism attacks in particular. Economic liberalization can cause or aggravate social ...

International Security,
Vol. 28, No. 3, Winter 2003-04, Cambridge

Biological threats, whether from transnational terrorist networks or from naturally occurring diseases such as SARS, have become a central "homeland security" concern in the United States. Some observers argue that globalization worsens the threat of bioterrorism attacks in particular. Economic liberalization can cause or aggravate social upheaval and economic inequality (which may provide the motivation for such attacks). Faster and cheaper communications and transportation enable the spread of powerful biotechnologies (which provide the means).

Kendall Hoyt of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and political scientist Stephen G. Brooks of Dartmouth College offer a compelling counterargument in their recent article, "A Double-Edged Sword: Globalization and Biosecurity," appearing in International Security. While acknowledging its downsides, Hoyt and Brooks contend that globalization has also produced a robust and interconnected biomedical research-and-development (R&D) enterprise essential to effective future biodefense.

Globalization is not the only double-edged sword; the authors also highlight the dual-use nature of biology itself. Biological knowledge is needed to develop weapons, but it is also vital to developing the drugs, vaccines, and other countermeasures essential to biosecurity. These countermeasures are critical because, as Hoyt and Brooks point out, the traditional routes to security — non-proliferation and counterproliferation — are of limited use for biosecurity. The biotechnology horse is already well out of the barn.

Pharmaceutical companies in India, Brazil, and elsewhere exemplify the globalization of biology as they emerge to challenge U.S. and European corporations in the half-trillion dollar world market. Cutting-edge biomedical research has also spread to laboratories beyond traditional powerhouses in the United States, Europe, and Japan: witness South Korea’s February 2004 advances in human cloning. Moreover, complex genetic engineering techniques have been simplified into user-friendly kits and automated instruments available on the Internet. For good and ill, access to powerful biotechnologies has increased.

Efforts to protect the United States by stemming the international flow of biomedical knowledge would likely cripple R&D efforts around the world, slowing the development of critical biodefense countermeasures. However, Hoyt and Brooks’s call for an "international biosecurity regime" to promote global R&D collaboration by harmonizing commercial and research regulations may be very challenging to implement. First, transnational R&D collaboration already occurs, as illustrated by the international contributions to the Human Genome Project and the numerous cross-border industrial partnerships Hoyt and Brooks chronicle. Second, as with South Korea’s cloning work, nations may capitalize on the lack of regulatory harmonization to surpass the United States and Europe. Third, a formal regime would likely suffer from a chaotic mix of biomedical scientists, pharmaceutical executives, and arms-control experts. A similar dynamic played out with the failure in 2001 to develop an effective verification protocol for the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

The authors highlight vaccines as the key to biodefense efforts, but such preventive efforts are only part of an interlocking set of medical countermeasures, including therapeutic drugs and medical diagnostics able to detect an emerging epidemic. Cost estimates for developing a drug now exceed $800 million and development usually takes more than 10 years, driving manufacturers toward blockbuster drugs that target chronic diseases. This focus has crippled the development of new vaccines and antibacterial and antiviral drugs; there are currently only four major vaccine manufacturers in the world. Moreover, recent analysis by Dr. Brad Spellberg and his colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that of the 506 new drugs being developed by the world’s 22 largest pharmaceutical and biotech companies, only six were antibacterial agents.

"Security planners must understand the dynamics of biomedical innovation in the commercial sector," Hoyt and Brooks explain, "to ensure that effective and safe biodefense vaccines are developed as quickly as possible." In the United States, security specialists have not yet convinced the biomedical R&D community that the defense sector is a long-term priority. For example, the Bush administration’s Project Bioshield — which allocates $5.6 billion over 10 years for the U.S. government to procure new drugs and vaccines — is an important first step, but it is far from enough. University of Pittsburgh researcher Ari Schuler has calculated that the five-year Manhattan Project would today cost $25 billion, and the Brookings Institution has estimated that the United States spent $5.5 trillion on nuclear weapons from 1940 to 1996. Biosecurity is a strategic security issue that will require a commensurate commitment.

Transnational networks of scientists and industry will become vital now that biomedical R&D expertise is not confined to the United States and Europe. In the near term, unfortunately, national leaders’ unfamiliarity with the true dimensions of biosecurity will hamper international collaboration and result in numerous nationally focused defense efforts. This focus on the "homeland" is not a sustainable strategy. In this arena, the homeland is global. True biosecurity, achieved by drug and vaccine development combined with robust epidemic response plans, must be global as well.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola