Reengineering Life is a column from Future Human about the ways humans are using biology to reprogram our bodies and the world around us.
In 2015, a report by a group called the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, made up of former members of Congress and past government appointees, warned that the United States was not prepared for a biological threat. The Covid-19 pandemic has confirmed that grim prediction. Already, more than 400,000 Americans have died, and one model predicts that deaths could surge to 630,000 or more by June. Vaccines could help end the current pandemic, but even then there will be other infectious threats to contend with.
The group, established in 2014, recently called the Covid-19 pandemic a “wake-up call for the United States to take biological threats seriously.” Co-chaired by former Sen. Joe Lieberman and former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, the commission argues that we need to beef up our defenses against man-made pathogens in addition to naturally occurring ones.
“The risks of future pandemics are increasing as technological progress eases barriers to modifying pathogens, raising the specter of novel biological agents causing diseases much worse than humanity has ever faced,” the commission said in a new report released in January. While there’s no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was created in a lab, advances in biotechnology are raising the possibility that man-made pathogens could someday be used as a bioweapon.
Either way, the commissioners say we need better ways to detect and respond to future emerging pathogens. In their new report, they say the country now needs an Apollo Program for biodefense. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed to landing astronauts on the moon by the end of the decade. The Apollo 11 mission accomplished that goal in 1969, making history. While ending the threat of pandemics seems like a tall task, the commissioners argue that it’s “more achievable today than landing on the moon was in 1961.”