Biotechies talk about how important it is for the US to maintain leadership in biotechnology. Public funding subsidizes R&D to maintain this leadership. We understand this as an effort to maintain economic growth, but it’s also a way to build geopolitical strength.
The US invests heavily in military power, which we project around the world with overseas bases, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines. But we also invest in soft power, delivering humanitarian aid, securing trade routes, and negotiating disputes among countries.
Biotechnology is a reserve of soft power. It can be used to deliver humanitarian aid, secure commerce, and build global incentives favorable to US hegemony.
Example: infectious disease threatens global trade. (After 2020, we can say, “Obviously.”) Can we use biotechnology to “secure the sea lanes?” We know that many biotechnology products require cold chain. What if we invested in securing “cold supply lines” around the world with the same zeal we protect oil tankers in the gulf? What if we built and enforced worldwide standards for infectious disease screening of passengers at ports of entry?
Historically, we’ve projected biopower as a form of humanitarian aid. We intervened in the 2015 Ebola outbreak. The US State Department funds ongoing health-related foreign aid projects. Most interesting is PEPFAR, which primarily distributes antiretroviral drugs and HIV diagnostics throughout Africa.
PEPFAR is quite unusual as a global health intervention. It essentially takes what we have here in the US and gives it away to poor nations. Should we be doing that more often? We certainly have more drugs and more diagnostics to give away. We don’t have, but we could build, programs to aggressively vaccinate against flu and SARS, all around the world, at our expense.
This is an expensive proposition. PEPFAR’s 2020 budget was $7 billion. USAID’s budget is $19 billion. Even if we got “at cost” rates for all these drugs (say, under threat of a Bayh-Dole march-in), a global SARS/Flu intervention would surely exceed our entire global aid budget. Is it worth it?
Any such program would surely buy American drugs and diagnostics. It could be restricted to companies that manufacture their drugs domestically. It would amount to a massive subsidy of American biotech, and therefore, an investment in our long-term economic advantages. Plus, it would send Americans around the globe, helping people. Think of it as a World War, where in the end everyone lives.
There’s a reason why investments in global security usually have a few more zeroes than everything else in the federal budget. We foot the bill because they’re ultimately investments in our own geopolitical power.
This brings us to the last point: biotechnology isn’t just soft power. Infectious disease is a weapon waiting to be wielded. We rightly ban bioweapons, but we can’t assume that everyone else will continue to do the same. Projecting biopower around the world increasing the chance that our first engagement with bioweapons is likely to be over there, not here.