The Age of Synthetic Biology: Start the War Games!

Eight years of research on H5N1 had convinced him that this cunning little Darwinian demon was capable of ecocide—the wiping out of entire species.

–Kennedy Shortridge, microbiologist, University of Hong Kong

It was bad enough when, beginning in March, US President Donald J. Trump repeatedly referred to Covid-19 as “the Chinese virus” in speeches, insulting Asian-Americans, and stirring up xenophobic remembrances of Yellow Perils Past, backpedaling and vacillating over his semiotic intentions, but then he left less doubt when he began to infer that China had let the spread of the virus happen “for whatever reason,” and began locating the epicenter of the outbreak, not with pangolins at the Wuhan wet market, which the MSM was initially feeding news consumers, but the up the road at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), site of pandemic studies, where research was being conducted on Coronavirus-laden bats. Problem is, as with Trump’s many assertions of “fake news” reports, there’s some truth; there’s some plausibility regarding the laboratory origins of the virus.

In late April, Newsweek featured a piece, “The Controversial Experiments and Wuhan Lab Suspected of Starting the Coronavirus Pandemic,” that gave potentially credence to our conspiracy-minded president’s words. The article explained that the lab had been working with bats and coronaviruses, and that, according to cables back to Washington, there was serious concern regarding safety at the lab. The article strongly implied that the lab was the source of our pandemic, but left open the question as to whether the virus was natural or synthetic. How it got out of the lab is still an open question. (Note: More recently, scientists have indicated that the Covid-19 spikes show no signs of synthetic manufacture.)

In turn, suspicion of the doings at WIV appear to have arisen out of concerns that the Chinese state-run lab was conducting so-called Gain-of-Function experiments. Such studies were first brought to the public’s attention in a controversial Nature article, “Engineered bat virus stirs debate over risky research,” in which chimeras are created during “lab research that increases the virulence, ease of spread or host range of dangerous pathogens.” Such research has been deeply criticized by Simon Wain-Hobson, a virologist at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, who sees it as too dangerous for the benefits expected. In the Nature piece, Wain-Hobson says, “If the virus escaped, nobody could predict the trajectory.” The US had suspended such research in October 2014.

But in an extraordinary bout of underreporting of public interest information, the moratorium was lifted in 2019, under President Trump, and the dangerous Gain-of-Function work began again. The Science article laments the opacity and lack of accountability of such research, and cites “critics of the work worried that such a souped-up virus could spark a pandemic if it escaped from a lab or was intentionally released by a bioterrorist.” It may very well be that such an escape happened at WIV late last year. Citing “a series of accidents at federal biocontainment labs” as a reason for the US moratorium, it’s entirely possible that such safety issues occurred at WIV as well – as reported by US embassy officials last year. It’s unknown precisely who the officials were, or why they were allowed to visit — “several times” — a Chinese state-run facility.

In any case, the Nature article, the embassy cables, the determination of WIV as the likely site of the novel Coronavirus eruption, and President Trump’s dangerous rhetoric has led to some serious conspiracy theories going viral, including one that suggests that the virus was manufactured, and, what’s more, as a bioweapon — one nut-job lot has gone so far as to sue the Chinese at the ICC with this charge. Trump, in his inimitable style, has softly stoked such fears and conjectures for his own political gain.

On the other hand, in general, there are things that the Chinese do that are alarming in the West, not only the plausibility that they were dabbling in bat shit to coax out the viral hombres at WIV, but also, though ‘morally’ unacceptable elsewhere in the world, a Chinese doctor was the first to have cloned humans and ‘accidentally’ enhanced the brain of embryos. Writes Antonio Regalado for MIT Tech Review, “News of the first gene-edited babies also inflamed speculation about whether CRISPR technology could one day be used to create super-intelligent humans, perhaps as part of a biotechnology race between the US and China.” As with an arms war, the stakes are too high to allow the ‘enemy competitor’ to corner the market on Rosemary Babies.

It is the anticipation of this kind of potentially evil behind-the-scenes shenanigans that is the subject of Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology (2018), a book released by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) to address the perceived threat rise in bioterror as the world moves in to profound new species-altering research and development. This review does not raise the question: Was the current Coronavirus intentionally released by the Chinese? But rather looks at the preparations under way for just that kind of eventuality.

Many American scientists consider it inevitable that ‘actors’ out there will – either for deviant pleasure, geopolitical strategy, or money – release some monster into civilization to disfigure it, even threaten humans with ecocide. (See Mike Davis’s The Monster Enters) BASB is an acknowledgement of that threat and a combined academic ‘framework’ for preparing for its inevitable arrival. It opens with a simple declaration of the obvious: “Scientific advances over the past several decades have accelerated the ability to engineer existing organisms and to potentially create novel ones not found in nature.” Though we are now assured by the MSM that the novel Covid-19 is not the byproduct of such manipulation, NASEM goes on immediately to point out that “the modification or creation of biological organisms, is being pursued overwhelmingly for beneficial purposes ranging from reducing the burden of disease to improving agricultural yields to remediating pollution.”

As the 2014 American scientific moratorium on certain kinds of R&D indicates, including the above-mentioned Gain-of-Function experiments, things can go wrong. NASEM addresses how to both assess and mitigate such potential biodefense concerns. How can we figure out, ahead of time, what is and isn’t such a concern? NASEM makes clear that we are moving into new existential territory and that “approaches modeled after those taken to counter Cold War threats are not sufficient to address biological and biologically enabled chemical weapons in the age of synthetic biology.” The BASB is a framework for establishing future protocols for assessing and doing something about future threats.

Such a framework was used in setting up DARPA’s Pandemic Prevention Program (P3). The program is intended to be a rapid response to viral spreads; its stated goal is to produce a viable therapeutic response to any virus in 60 days or less. Warp Speed, as Trump calls it. This involves bringing together partners in R&D and Big Pharma to manufacture a bespoke therapy (in the case of Covid-19, for instance, antibody regimes, vaccines and drugs). As part of its preparation, using leading edge computational modelling, P3 partners run the equivalent of ‘war games’ using simulated novel viruses for which they develop their rapid response. Here’s their graphic overview.

Then what exactly is synthetic biology, in more detail? What is being assessed? In the process of determining what the level of concern required in the assessment of a synbio product is scientists examine the usability of the technology and its usability as weapon. How easy is the technology to use in creating the synbio? How feasible is it to weaponize? In addition, the BASB asks what some requirements for actors involved in production are (for instance, what access do they have to expertise?). And what are the potential threats to be headed off or mitigated, and how (deterrence, consequence management)?

As any sensible person would wonder, why do we need to muck around with nature? Aren’t there less extreme, even if inconvenient, ways of getting around some of the obstacles we face? BASB scientists have a prepared answer:

Often looked to as a means of producing products that would otherwise be difficult to obtain, synthetic biology has already led to new ways of producing pharmaceuticals including opioids and the antimalarial drug artemisinin. There are ongoing efforts to engineer microorganisms to produce fuels, act as detection devices, and clean up toxic spills. Synthetic biology is also seen as a potential means to grow organs for transplant, manipulate the microbiome, and even produce cosmetics.

There aren’t just a few of us who might wonder if such meddling were worth it if brought along an opioid crisis we can’t shake. And as for malaria miracles, “the spread or independent emergence of artemisinin resistance could pose a global public health threat,” creating many more problems than it cures.

One might ask, for instance, if it’s worth the risk to create bugs that are fuel (imagine a firefly turned into a raging pyro on a rampage – goodbye, California!), and while it’s very Nietzschean to call upon Überbacterium to clean up spills – maybe it’s time we found an alternative to oil instead. And should we be blithely manipulating the microbiome, replacing butter with synthetic olios? Have we learned nothing from the 70s? And what if a synbio cosmetic turns on you? Okay, there are probably synbio products that could prove beneficial to humanity, but just haven’t been enumerated yet.

The thing is, that’s not what they’re talking here; BASB scientists are anticipating and preparing for inevitable biological warfare with technology becoming ever more readily available to lay people. They paint a picture of a Columbine High incident where guns are replaced with biological surprises. In short, the inclusion of ‘the bright side,’ strikes one as absurd here. It recalls that war room conversation from Dr. Strangelove where MIC types discuss the future of humanity after they blow up the world (a smirklesome George C. Scott quite likes the idea of a future where each man is assigned 100 women for re-population purposes. The Roe vs. Wade battle finally over.) On behalf of future women, Madeleine Albright was asked if she thought all the carnage was worth it for an opportunity to bed down with a real-life George C. Scott: It was a telling response.

The middle section of BASB is all about Assessment. There are three chapters where NASEM scientists discuss assessing concerns related to pathogens, biochemical, and bioweapons that alter the human host. They provide helpful examples:

The use of disease as a weapon is thought to date back to at least the Middle Ages, when the Tartars used catapults to hurl plague victims over protective walls in the city of Caffa. Settlers to North America presented Native Americans with blankets that had covered smallpox victims, potentially exposing this naïve population to the scourge of smallpox.

I recall the mad cows of Caffa, flung down by corpse evangelists, as it were, and acted out for us by the Monty Python lot; and, who can’t feel for the Native American when he learns his blanket has been dusted by the nice intruder. Hey, their examples, man. My freedom associations. It’s like They know it’s absurd, even subliminally, to be talking Mad magazine Spy vs. Spy stuff, as if doing each other with cows, blankets, and Satan bugs was normal in the 21st century. Then, in the course of my research, I discover the Chinese now fear Covid-19 will be followed by a plague of locusts. Sweet Cheeses.

So how do we watch for the development of these evils? The BASEM scientists spend many pages developing two lines of thought on this matter. First, they explain that we need to monitor and surveil and keep our sensors open wide because

synthetic biology makes it possible to synthesize genomes and use those to generate, or “boot,” copies of naturally occurring organisms in the laboratory, opening new opportunities for the acquisition of existing, regulated pathogens” and “synthetic biology tools could be used to synthesize and boot entirely new organisms, potentially incorporating genetic material from multiple existing organisms.

Are you composting in your pants the way I am right now?

But the probably the scariest section of the book is where the scientists begin discussing “bioweapons that alter the human host.” In one scene in the film The Andromeda Strain, in which scientists converge to quell a crystal virus from outer space, the group is talking about the human body as host, one of them snarks about the body being “one of the dirtiest things in the known universe.” We are hosts to countless viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms we don’t understand.

It is hard to grasp that we need to prepare for the plausibility that there are hombres out there who would gladly play with our microbiomes, immune systems, and genomes; who would hack our brains, if they could. We think: impossible, but oink again. We are forced to remember people such as Shiro Ishii, a WWII Japanese general, and eugenicist, protected by the CIA under Operation Paperclip (Sydney Gottlieb), who headed Unit 731, a horror camp in Manchuria, where Ishii went to work on internees. CIA historian Stephen Kinzer describes prisoners

slowly roasted by electricity…hung upside down…locked into high-pressure chambers until their eyes popped out; spun in centrifuges infected with anthrax, syphilis, plague, cholera, and other diseases; forcibly impregnated to provide infants for vivisection; bound to stakes to be incinerated by soldiers testing flamethrowers; and slowly frozen to observe the progress of hypothermia.

Our heads spin when we read of such doings, and discover we protected these types with CIA cover.

But playing Devil’s advocate for a moment, while Ishii was recruited by the CIA to keep him from the Russians who, we feared, would play him against us in the Cold War ahead, some American military brass believe that it’s important to return to a Cold War mentality, with its useful paranoia, as it’s the only practical way we can step into the minds of these evil actors. Everything in BASB is a return to such a cold, calculating war – a return to MAD thinking – where we ‘sense’ what They are up to and try to stop it, while at the same time we build equally evil and catastrophic by-products in preparation for some evil genius unleashing his/her unhappiness on the world stage. Thus, the Internet, though benign on the surface, has many digital wormholes and dark places people can go to for fun plays with maladaptation, and so, the DoD argues, the gift they gave to the world is now a battlefield and they must control it – again. It appears to be another MIC foresight.

An example of this kind of planning, we can look at the aforementioned DARPA P3 initiative, which, again, is specifically set up to rapidly respond to viruses and to come up with a viable therapeutic solution in less than 60 days. Part of the what they do this is by creating viruses ahead of time, using the latest super-clocked computers, to digitally, and, in some cases, “boot up” known viruses to have remedies ready.

Again, it is exactly such booting up that American officials feared may have been taking place in Wuhan, prior to the Covid-19 outbreak; and, at the least, it’s probably no coincidence that the Trump administration, at the insistence of the DoD, lifted the moratorium on Gain-of-Function experiments in order to keep up with the Chinese, who, instead of falling into the trap the Soviets fell for – engaging in a budget-blasting arms race – have put their big money into R&D, including the neurosciences and synthetic biology. And, ironically, many of their scientists are American-educated. Hell, a lead WIV scientist hails from my alma mater, UMass-Amherst. For all I know, he was standing next to me at a kegger.

Though written a couple of years before the Covid-19 outbreak, BASB clearly anticipates the kind of messing with bats that could bring about the pandemic we now have. NASEM scientists write,

The bat virus, however, does not grow in cell culture. To help elucidate the steps that may have occurred to convert bat SARS-CoV into a virus infecting humans, Becker and colleagues (2008) substituted the human SARS coronavirus receptor binding domain for the equivalent domain in the bat SARS-CoV virus, making the bat SARS virus replication competent in cell culture and mice.

This is the kind of work that can lead to problems – safety, escape, malfeasance. It raises the question of why we would want to conduct such research place. But again, surveillance, mitigation and monitoring of known actors, cannot always reign in potential perps. We can arrange for Stuxnet to wipe out a Iranian nuclear centrifuge system, but when we are dealing with rogue states or even allies without advanced human rights regimes (Saudi Arabia, UAE, China, Russia, Syria, Iran) there is only MAD readiness – hell, even in the US, access to technology, such as CRISPRs, make the future fraught with all kinds of phantasmagorical possibilities, which can only get worse, thanks Moore’s Law and the quantum computing ahead.

What’s required of us is a thorough read of Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology. It’s a dry read, but mercifully short. You’ll get the gist quickly. In the appendices are two sections worth looking at afterward – first, Specific Synthetic Biology Concepts, Approaches, and Tools; and, second, Questions to Stimulate Consideration of Framework Factors. They provide a good summary and outline useful for discussion of these activities. You can find a free PDF copy of the book at the NASEM site. Another thing you can do is educate yourself about Covid-19. Complete the free Contact Tracer course at Johns Hopkins University, which explains in great detail what Covid-19 is and how its transfer to other is being databased by tracers. You can also continue from there with free Coursera courses in immunology that more fully immerse you in the subject discussed above.

As we seem to be heading toward a series of rolling pearl harbors, if Mike Davis’s warnings are any indication, you may want to stay on top of whatever rational elements of these MAD doings are still coherent and potentially controllable, before Chill Will’s goes riding that next Corona down to the happy end of the world.

Here we go again.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.