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.”
The United States has taken on similarly ambitious projects. The Interstate Highway System created a network of highways to connect the country, and the Human Genome Project gave scientists the first map of our genetic code.
The commissioners imagine a future in which the government has the ability to discover new pathogens early, distribute rapid tests to citizens, and have drugs and vaccines on hand to quell the next outbreak before it becomes a pandemic. To do so would cost up to $10 billion a year, they say. The commission got input from more than 125 experts and identified more than a dozen technologies that could help eliminate future biological threats.
The group, established in 2014, recently called the Covid-19 pandemic a “wake-up call for the United States to take biological threats seriously.”
Genome sequencing, for one, could help the government better monitor novel pathogens or new strains of existing ones that might be emerging. The technique provides a readout of an organism’s entire DNA code so that it can be compared with others. Currently, the United States is struggling to keep pace with other countries, like the U.K., when it comes to sequencing coronavirus samples. Broader and more frequent sequencing would provide a “better baseline understanding of the genetic material around us,” the report says.
Better digital pathogen surveillance systems, which pull from the internet and other electronically available data, could also help monitor biological threats within and outside of U.S. borders, they write.
To detect man-made pathogens, the report recommends developing machine learning techniques to “distinguish natural and engineered DNA.” Training these machine learning tools, however, will require establishing vast datasets of known pathogens.
Having better therapeutics, tests, and vaccines on hand could also help stop a pandemic in its tracks. One solution is broad-spectrum drugs that could work against multiple pathogens. Rapid, low-cost tests that are available to the general public are also necessary for better contact tracing and outbreak control, the authors say. While a few rapid and at-home tests for Covid-19 have been approved for emergency use, their accuracy, cost, and complexity make them impractical for widespread use.
And needle-free vaccines could speed up vaccine distribution. As we’re seeing with the current pandemic, vaccine rollout remains slow and complicated. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine needs to be kept at extremely cold temperatures — colder than winter in Antarctica — or else it will spoil. This presents a challenge for vaccine shipping and storage. Oral vaccines, microneedle patches that deliver a vaccine through the skin, or inhaled formulations could allow people to self-administer a vaccine instead of relying on a health care professional to do it.
“With further advancement of self-administered vaccines, we could dramatically streamline the process by which we get life-saving treatments and vaccines to the public,” the report says.
Taking these steps and others, the commission says, could eliminate pandemic threats by 2030. But there are still ways that a dangerous pathogen could slip beneath the radar. For instance, A.I. programs can’t completely rule out that an organism has been created in a lab; it can only confirm that it wasn’t engineered in specific ways.
And while bioengineering a dangerous pathogen is certainly possible, it’s far more probable that a spillover from nature will be the cause of the next pandemic. As humans continue to disturb the natural habitats where these pathogens reside, there will always be risks of new diseases spilling over to humans. Climate change, too, is presenting new possibilities for disease outbreaks.
It’s impossible to prepare for every unknown. But the commission’s recommendations to get ahead of the next pandemic would be a start.