Congressional staffers created antibiotic-resistant bacteria. And that’s a good thing.

September 22, 2023
Allison Berke, Jassi Pannu

The following is an excerpt from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Over the US congressional recess this past summer, when schedules had freed up enough to permit cross-country travel, a group of staffers travelled to a community bio lab in Oakland, Calif., known as BioCurious. There they would grow antibiotic resistant bacteria, and, along the way, learn how CRISPR technology works and how easy it might be for an individual to genetically engineer a pathogen. Over at a biotech company in Menlo Park, Antheia, another group of staffers had escaped Washington to learn how synthetic biology can speed up the process of manufacturing medicinal compounds.

The field trips were part of programs run by Stanford University and the Institute for Progress that bring policy makers—like these congressional staffers—to labs and university campuses and immerse them in the biosecurity issues they need to understand if they are to develop effective policy about, for instance, identifying when research has the possibility to make pathogens dangerous, or the development of US biomanufacturing and efforts to expand the resilience of our medical supply chain.

Similar programs on cybersecurity policy and AI policy have operated for the past eight years. But biosecurity is a new focus for a research community that continually walks the line between promoting the fantastic discoveries of biomedical science (and synthetic biology in particular) and attempting to prevent these same tools from being used to spread pandemics or create bioweapons.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, biosecurity education and training remains a niche activity that has yet to reach the variety of programs or breadth of scholarship that nuclear security has attained in the United States. According to the Peace and Security Funding Map project, 17 US-based organizations received philanthropic funding specifically for nuclear security issues in 2021, while just seven received funding specifically for biosecurity. Funding for biosecurity education and policy-focused work is highly concentrated. It comes from a small handful of funders, and the academic programs receiving the most funding are all in the DC area, limiting the reach of biosecurity-specific programs and courses. Along with task-specific education, such as for health care workers exposed to disease or laboratory personnel working with hazardous pathogens, the COVID-19 response has demonstrated the need for policy makers to have a broader understanding of the technologies they are tasked with regulating and developing, which many have likely never touched.

Continue reading at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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