The Global Forum on Biorisks
December 1, 2009
For more than 15 years, policymakers and security analysts have been concerned that governments, terrorists, or even a crazed individual would misuse the rapid advances in the life sciences to cause widespread death and disruption. Traditional proliferation concerns fostered by discoveries of illicit governmental biological weapons programs, together with novel worries provoked by emerging terrorist interest in such capabilities, elevated the issue of biological security on the policy agenda. In the autumn of 2001, following the tragedy of the 9/11 attacks, it seemed that people’s worst fears were to be realized as anthrax-filled letters resulted in five deaths and, more broadly, sparked extensive anxiety that disrupted the daily lives of countless individuals. As a result, between the time of the “Amerithrax” letters and today, the United States has spent, according to some estimates, more than $50 billion to protect itself from biological attacks.
The deliberate misuse of the life sciences and related technology for harm challenges existing policy mechanisms in a number of ways. Given the complexity of the issues and of the stakes involved, it is difficult to arrive at a common understanding of the threat, let alone the solutions. The speed at which dimensions of the risk are changing makes it difficult for slow-reacting governments to keep up and provide appropriate policy and regulatory responses. The expanding scope of the challenge has introduced a requirement for many more players to be involved in the process of managing biological risks. Traditional institutions and measures appear less and less able to provide adequate governance for an increasingly unfamiliar issue characterized by novel dynamics and fostered by a convergence of recent global trends.
This report addresses these concerns. It first considers the evolving challenges posed by naturally occurring disease as well as the potential misuse of the life sciences and related technology, including a number of trends whose convergence imbues biosecurity challenges with unfamiliar dimensions. It then considers the variety of professional communities that are stakeholders in managing biological risks, presenting their different perspectives. It goes on to assess factors that must be incorporated into an effective strategy for countering this evolving challenge, and it concludes by introducing the Global Forum on Biorisks—a comprehensive, integrated, international, and multisectoral approach to dissuading, mitigating, interdicting, countering, and responding to biological threats of natural, accidental, or intentional origin.