Developing multiple vaccines in just a year to protect people from the Covid-19 pandemic is one of the great scientific achievements of the modern era. But it didn’t happen in a vacuum. It required decades of research, built layer upon layer, to create the infrastructure that made it possible, including the use of digital technologies in such areas as DNA sequencing.
During a Dec. 14 webcast hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Dr. Tara O’Toole, Senior Fellow and Executive Vice President of In-Q-Tel, compared the use of digital technologies for biological advancement to the great scientific revolutions of history.
“Whether we’re talking about the 1400s and 1500s when Copernicus created a new description of the physical world, or the 1700s with mathematics to gain a different understanding of the physical world, or the early 1800s birth of modern medicine, [it was about] getting a new or deeper perspective of how the physical world operates,” O’Toole said. “This bio-revolution has new tools for interrogating … how living organisms work. [And] with that, our ability to manipulate has grown and is accelerating.”
The CSIS webcast marked the release of its new brief, “Building Apollo’s Arsenal: Acquiring Covid-19’s Lessons Learned for Government – Bioeconomy Partnership,” based on a series of workshops and briefings.
The problem, as the pandemic has demonstrated on a global scale, is that the federal government does very little to provide structural support and guidance for bioengineering research and development on an ongoing basis, O’Toole said.
“We have tremendous research universities that increasingly are using the venture capital ecosystem to … bring products into the real world,” she said. There is a “gap between what the private sector could do, wants to do, and what the government thinks needs doing.”
Dr. Chris Fall, Vice President for Applied Sciences at The MITRE Corporation, agreed. “Investing in our infrastructure … is important. We’re all acknowledging this Covid exhaustion – they’re so tired of it, they don’t want to hear about it anymore, [and] so many other topics are on the table,” such as the Build Back Better bill, he said. “We still have the health departments telling us about Covid, but [I’m concerned] investment will fall off a cliff. [I’m] very concerned we don’t have the momentum or the authorizations and appropriations to carry through with what we’ve learned.”
Fall pointed out that there have been a number of meta-analyses that found the cost to address the pandemic “is something like a hundred times” the cost to have prevented Covid. “We’re saving a dollar to spend a billion.”
“We have to redefine what makes up national security, national power, and economic [power],” O’Toole said. “National security should include, in the real world, getting very, very active mitigation of climate warming. [It’s] going to have to include the bioeconomy because I think the world is going to depend on that in 20 years – and so does China. This is a conceptual revolution in our notion of national security. It’s not about defending borders from military attack … It’s organizing to deal with planetary issues.”
She suggested the government should learn from how the U.S. took on the challenge of responding to the USSR’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. The country “really did revamp the science curriculum for high school,” she said. Now that should apply to biology degrees, which “take too long and cost too much.”
Rethinking the government’s approach to the various bioscientific fields and how to nurture and use them is challenging, both experts warned.
“We’re not going to have the resilience if the first thing people think of is that biosecurity is dangerous,” O’Toole said. “For most people, security means threat.”
“If you’re talking about biosecurity, you need to have people in our national labs based on cutting-edge bioengineering work … so they can understand [it], so they can help commercialize it, and because” that is where classified work should be conducted, said Fall.
They suggested there should be a national laboratory for biology, with a focus on national security, “to do the work long term and at a moment’s notice,” O’Toole added. “What I think is needed for biology is a safety and security regime that depends heavily on scientists and their powers … We’re never going to keep up with the pace of science via regulations. [What] we need is a best-practices regime, where we have a centralized body to which we can report near misses and mishaps.” She pointed out that the model she described is essentially the same one adopted by the nuclear power industry after the Three Mile Island disaster.
“We’re going to do a lot of very scary things in the next 25 years with living organisms and people are going to demand” safeguards, she said. “Coming up with frameworks is an inherently governmental task.”
Fall said there should not be a “White House czar” for biology. “There’s not a great model to run it out of the National Security Council, [but] I do think there needs to be an executive agency lead.”
O’Toole suggested the biosciences should create their own framework. “The way I’d like to see it fall out is researchers from both the public and private sectors convene a meeting and propose something, including an enforcement arm,” she said. “Somebody has to convene the meeting. In terms of biosafety, I’d like to see the scientific community convene the first meeting [and] put some ideas on the table. … I don’t think the U.S. government contains enough people who understand how biology is happening at the edge.”