In its effort to continue to widen scientific knowledge of its Members, the Department of Science and Technology – Biosafety Committee (DOST-BC) invited Dr. Gregory D. Koblentz to share his knowledge about Global Biosecurity Challenges: Genome Editing and BSL-4 Labs during the 144th DOST-BC Meeting held virtually last 17 July 2021.
Dr. Koblentz is an Associate Professor and Director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government. He also oversees the Virtual Summer Workshop on Pandemics and Global Health Security at the Schar School. Dr. Koblentz is also an Associate Faculty at the Center for Security Policy Studies at George Mason and a member of the Scientist Working Group on Biological and Chemical and Security at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington, DC. During 2012-2013, he was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations where he conducted research on nuclear proliferation. In 2016, he briefed the United Nations Security Council on the impact of emerging technologies on the threat posed by non-state actors armed with weapons of mass destruction.
His presentation revolved around two challenges that are confronting Global Biosecurity: these are genome editing and the rise of BSL-4 Laboratories. Dr. Koblentz emphasized that these two challenges will grow as he expects that genome editing will expand and develop even further.
Dr. Koblentz presented a brief context about why genome editing is an important key breakthrough. He stated that if we can control DNA we can also manipulate it and can cause profound implications across different areas.
He also discussed how CRISPR works and emphasized that CRISPR is the recently used method in conducting genome editing and by far the most easily used and widely adopted method around the world.
Dr. Koblentz mentioned that CRISPR has evolved into a versatile platform capable of performing many functions that is easily customizable and can be tailored to different types of action within a cell. The analogy of a Swiss Army knife is frequently invoked to illustrate the adaptability of CRISPR. With this tool being as modular, it helps biologist to conduct large-scale experiments much easier than previously possible to perform multiple edits of genome at one time.
With the versatility of CRISPR, it is now widely used in the field of Biomedical Research, Industrial Biotechnology, Human Health, and Agriculture to develop new products and processes. He also expects that by 2028, the genome editing technology will have exponential profit growth as more countries, companies, and research institutions have heavily invested in this technology to improve its products efficiency, accuracy, and affordability.
With the stated benefits and advantages, Dr. Koblentz, however, presented the safety and security risks enabled by genome editing. In a report of Dr. Koblentz’ group, they have identified the following risk with regards to:
- Dual-use Research
- Reckless Application
He gave a brief overview of four general categories of biological threats posed by genome editing, as follows: modifying pathogens to be more dangerous, hijacking the microbiome to produce harmful compounds, weaponizing gene drives, and weaponizing gene therapy.
The second part of Dr. Koblentz’ presentation concerns maximum containment laboratories commonly referred to as Biosafety Level 4 (BSL4) labs. These are designed and built to work safely and securely with the most dangerous pathogens that can cause serious diseases and for which no treatment or vaccines exist.
He said that at present there are fifty nine (59) maximum containment facilities in operation either under construction or planned around the world. The largest concentration of BSL4 labs are in Europe which has twenty-five (25) labs, North America has fourteen (14), Asia has thirteen (13), Australia has four (4) and Africa three (3). He added that sound biosafety and biosecurity practices exist but are not widely adopted. Only three (3) out of twenty-three (23) countries have national policies on dual-use biological research and development activities with significant potential to be repurposed by state- or non-state actors to cause harm.
Dr Koblentz stated that one of the reasons why these laboratories emerge or is likely to increase is because scientists seek to better understand and address the COVID-19 Virus.
More information regarding these laboratories and their location can be found in the book “Mapping Maximum Biological Containment Labs Globally” and at the website “GlobalBiolabs.org”. The book provides a good resource for the public to be aware on Biorisk Policies in place to ensure that they are operated safely, securely and responsibly, while the website contains the geographic location of every laboratory, including the biosafety and biosecurity measures in place. #