Biotech is a security issue, even if we don’t want it to be



Looking back over my recent posts, I realize I may be turning a lot of people off. We in biotech and the life sciences talk about discovery and saving lives. We think of our industry as multinational and multiethnic. We view our work as humanitarian and humanistic.

This is not how I talk about biotech.

I talk about pandemic response as a war. I compare biotech firms to defense contractors. I talk about diseases as a threat to be fought — overseas, when possible.

Clearly, I think think there’s a lot to gain from this kind of us vs. them framing, as objectionable as it might be to my colleagues. So it seems past time to explain why I like looking at biotech through a national security lens.

The first point is that biotech is not as globalized as we might like to think. The regulatory landscape is very different from country to country and most firms focus their efforts geographically. The few truly global firms like Roche or Thermo are the exceptions that prove the rule: their sprawling structure of often-competing business units are a necessity in a world where there is no one-size-fits-all business model. The nationalized landscape extends forward to patient care, because health insurance and infrastructure are defined by national policy. It extends backwards to basic science, because public funds are the primary source of basic science funding. In short, biotech is balkanized.

The second point is that public health failures have consequences that move markets and shift political power. Two years ago, I would have spent a couple of paragraphs explaining this. Now it’s just, “COVID, duh.”

All that said, I don’t see biotech as a fight among nations. If your sensibilities are communitarian, you can narrow the meaning of “domestic” to mean your own family and friends. If you’re a globalist, broaden it to mean our geopolitical allies. If you’re a humanist, it can mean all people, everywhere.

Biodefense should look the same regardless of where, or even whether, you draw a distinction between us and them. We want to fight threats before they’re at our doorstep. But who is the “we” in that last sentence? Frankly, it doesn’t matter. Any new disease is “over there” to anyone lucky enough to not be patient zero. Our mission is to make those diseases stay “over there” for as much of humanity as possible.

All that said, it’s naive to pretend there are no antagonists in this story. Historically, disease has emerged by evolutionary pressure, but that doesn’t mean humanity has no control over where and how diseases emerge. Crowded farms and wildlife markets are man-made. Disease surveillance will require major public investment, much of it structured as foreign aid.

COVID has also shown us that governments will stonewall and bury politically inconvenient science and intimidate scientists. We can’t take epidemiological transparency for granted. Disease incidence is tracked primarily by public institutions, in which key officers have geopolitical agendas and varying levels of tolerance for cooperation and accountability.

Then there’s the scariest, and therefore, the most important reason to think about biothreats as a security issue: disease is a weapon. It always has been; today, it is less used than ever before. But the fact that it’s lurking in the background also makes it Chekhov’s gun: we should expect it to be fired eventually.

The risk is increasing. The more we learned about the atom, the easier it became to fashion an atom bomb. Infectious disease research is in a renaissance that is simultaneously, inevitably, making it easier to weaponize disease.

One corollary of this line of thinking is that we need to control access to biotechnology. It’s not hard to see value in at least trying to limit proliferation of biotechnology like we limit access to nuclear, or, less effectively, computational technology.

The point is that we should defend ourselves, whatever our politics. If you want to know why I sound like a bionationalist, it’s not because I want to alienate anyone or pick a fight. I just think it’s only a matter of time before the fight comes to us.

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Scientist, biotech executive, American. All the conflicts of interest.