q-among-the-exponential-technologies-shaping-the-world-today-the-biological-revolution-is-of-exceptional-importance-in-this-context-critically-examine-the-biosecurity-concerns-of-synthetic-biology-and


 

Q) Among the exponential technologies shaping the world today, the biological revolution is of exceptional importance. In this context, critically examine the biosecurity concerns of synthetic biology and India’s preparedness in the domains of biosafety and biosecurity.

Why this Question?

Important part of GS Paper-III.

Key demand of the Question 

Discuss in detail the biosecurity concerns of synthetic biology and India’s preparedness in the domains of biosafety and biosecurity. 

Directive 

Critically examine – When asked to ‘Examine’, we have to look into the topic (content words) in detail, inspect it, investigate it and establish the key facts and issues related to the topic in question. While doing so we should explain why these facts and issues are important and their implications. When ‘critically’ is suffixed or prefixed to a directive, one needs to look at the good and bad of the topic and give a fair judgment. 

Introduction 

Start with the definition of Synthetic biology. 

Body 

In the first part, categorically explain the risks involved in synthetic biology.

Next Discuss the mechanism for regulation in existence and highlight the concerns for India. 

Conclusion

Conclude with a way forward.

Model Answer

Synthetic biology is a revolutionary technology that can help us manipulate biological organisms and processes for human betterment, especially in treating diseases, by re-engineering cells. In 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense categorised synthetic biology as one of the six ‘disruptive basic research’ areas. Unlike the nuclear domain, the fields of biology or synthetic biology are not regulated internationally despite growing military interest in it.

Risks involved in Synthetic Biology

  1. Incomplete Understanding- The rapid rise of synthetic biology in the last two decades and its still-to-be-understood implications haven’t received sufficient attention from the security studies or policy communities. 
  2. Deliberate Misuse- While the technology is still not easily accessible, the day is not far off when such technologies won’t be difficult to access. There is a need to carefully review, especially in the wake of the pandemic, the biosecurity systems in place where such technologies are in use.
  3. Bioweapons- A well-planned attack using highly infectious pathogens synthetically engineered in a lab could be disastrous. This should concern the security establishment.
  4. Lacks attention of Policy makers- The linkage between national security and synthetic biology is yet to become an agenda item in mainstream national security debates.  Contrast this with the focus on nuclear weapons, facilities and material. 
  5. Accidental leaks of experimental pathogens- Insufficiently trained staff, inadequately safeguarded facilities, and lack of proper protocols could all be behind such leaks
  6. Dual Use Technology- While bio-weapons are banned, research for medical and bio-defence purposes are allowed. While this is understandable, the problem is that there is a thin line between bio-defence research and bio-weapons research. Bio-defence research could potentially be used to create bio-weapons.

Regulations currently with Synthetic Biology

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), 1972

  1. When it comes to bio-weapons, all we have is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) of 1972 with no implementing body.
    • The BTWC does not have a verification clause, nor does it have clearly laid down rules and procedures to guide research in this field.
    • Article 1 of the BTWC bans bio-weapons but research for medical and bio-defence purposes are allowed.
    • While this is understandable, the problem is that there is a thin line between bio-defence research and bio-weapons research. 
    • An Ad Hoc Group set up in 1994 to negotiate a Protocol to enhance the transparency of treaty-relevant biological facilities and activities to help deter violations of the BTWC submitted a report at the Fifth BTWC Review Conference in 2001 but was not accepted by the member states.

Concerns for India

  • India is at a uniquely disadvantaged position in this area given poor disease surveillance, insufficient coordination among various government departments dealing with biosecurity issues, and the pathetic state of the healthcare system.
  • India has multiple institutions dealing with biosafety and biosecurity threats but there is no coordination among them.
  • Given the rising risk of diseases of zoonotic origin, the traditional ministry-wise separation might not be useful.
  • India, with its porous borders and ill-trained border control institutions, will remain vulnerable to pathogens or dangerous biological organisms.

Way forward

  • Pandemics have highlighted that the traditional distinction at the international institutional level between biological weapons (a field governed by the BTWC) and diseases (governed by BTWC) may not be useful anymore.
  • There needs to be more conversation between health specialists and bio-weapons/defence specialists.
  • The November 2021 BTWC review conference must take stock of the advances in the field, address the thinning line between biotechnology research and bio-weapons research, and consider international measures for monitoring and verification.