World, is it time for the “I told you so"? Probably not, no. Not yet.
I’d walk into the lecture theatre, position myself in the center, look at as many of my audience’s eyes as I could, give a faint smile and I’d begin; where I would have usually said “and now put your imagination hat on", I found myself saying this time, “in light of the current pandemic".
I am a PhD candidate at the Centre for Future Crime in the University College London. My background is in Biochemistry and Theoretical Systems Biology and my current research focuses on biocrime, or the exploitation of biological tools, devices, information and systems. I claim that, despite current regulation (such as the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 or the struggling International Health Regulations of 2005 by the World Health Organisation (WHO)), Biosecurity is outdated. And that’s because it is outpaced by technology . Technology such as DNA sequencing — yes that tube of saliva you probably sent halfway across the world to find out where you’re from — is becoming exponentially cheaper. Once upon a time (well in the early 2000’s, when the first Human Genome was sequenced) that costed $100 million and required a highly specialized laboratory and experts to conduct, now costs just under a hundred bucks and can be done at home!
What’s driving this is Synthetic biology, an engineering science where living organisms can be re-programmed to produce useful products or processes (think fragrances, pharmaceuticals or — if only — vaccines). Programmable biology, in turn, makes biohacking possible. Biohackers are individuals who practice synthetic biology outside of the institutional premise, that may or may not have received formal scientific training. This is because technology is becoming more accessible, more available, labs are becoming more and more connected (yes, it is not just your toaster that’s becoming smarter), labs are becoming more computer-controlled and are moving towards automation. On top of that biological data is increasingly uploaded online (think about that cloud) — and let us not forget about all the data (DNA) that we shed everyday, and quite freely.
Biosecurity is outpaced; by new users of technology, new types of attacks and new attack opportunities. Ok, I promised I wouldn’t try scare you as I usually do my students, but it is quite inevitable. Here I would usually explain what is possible by describing Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s work in 2017 were she collected discarded (DNA) samples in the streets of New York in the form of cigarette buds, chewing gum and hair. From the genetic material she was able to extract on the discard samples, Heather was able to reconstruct the people’s faces whos discarded samples belonged to (eg the color of their eyes, ethnicity and general facial structure). But with current events such as the coronavirus, the impact on such biological events or biocrimes, goes without saying.
So to go back to how this article started, it was the first lecture I gave (virtually — since the University announced closure due to the virus) to a masters Forensics module within the Security and Crime science course, where suddenly I didn’t have to tell them to “put their imagination hats on”, and imagine a dystopian future of the effects of biocrime.
Even more so, I could just explain how much a “biohacked” corona-like virus would cost to make. The number of mutations needed for SARS-CoV-2 to emerge from it’s progenitor is 5 and so approximating the cost of PCR for mutagenesis from say GenScript, a main gene synthesis company, then the cost of bench scale E. coli cultivation, plasmid purification and some simple DNA assembly experiments. Add on top mammalian cell cultivation for 1–2 months, mammalian cell transient transfection and reagents. A simple way of pricing it and — grossly — overestimating, of course, is costing a post-doc’s time for a couple of months at $8,000/month (to include salary, consumables and equipment use), and you’ve got a covid-19 loose for $16,000 in 2 months.
This paper might argue against it, of course “Our analyses clearly show that SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus.” The authors conducted “computational analyses” on the most variable part of the coronavirus genome, the receptor-binding domain (RBD) in the spike protein, to find that the prediction on the current interaction (with human ACE2)is sub-optimal and therefore “most likely the result of natural selection”.
The point is, it is possible and the impact is drastic — I mean we’re living it right now. And unfortunately policy is retrofitting, in other words something as big as what is going on right now needs to happen before it is important enough to plan for it..yeah pickle of a situation there.
Technology isn’t all that bad though. During these strange (or not so strange, maybe if you saw it coming) times, where the weakness in our healthcare systems, the holes in our biosecurity and biosafety protocols are revealed, biohackers team up to help develop solutions remotely with Do-It-Yourself (DIY) coronavirus detection methods to be carried out at home (if infected) or at a community lab (if not infected)— check out their online protocol here, and try contribute if you can! The London Biohackspace has a dedicated slack channel in the hopes that it will help people isolate themselves and develop a reliable, safe and open sourced detection method. Even the WHO are now “real-time” by starting a Whatsapp conversation to reach billions of people at once.
But the real winner in leveraging technology to “bio-combat” Covid-19 is a country you would least expect, given it’s proximity to China. With big data analytics, proactive testing, a rapid response — but above all, a display of wisdom (a.k.a. learning from past events), Taiwan was able to contain the coronavirus with only 235 cases in comparison to China’s 81,661. Beyond policies, Taiwan on January 24th — yes exactly two months ago — implemented actionable measures that reflect all the lessons it had learned from a previous epidemics (remember SARs in 2003? What about the swine flu outbreak in 2009?) and begs to be an example of what healthcare and biosecurity should look like more globally. Ok so how did it win? It implemented more than 120 safety protocols (follow this link!) during the outbreak, but let’s visit a few of their actions more specifically:
- They were fast to react — the worst that can happen when taking leadership is to be called an alarmist, not too bad when compared to the below estimated UK death toll in different scenarios of action by Imperial College London.
- The government took control and distributed masks to it’s citizens(two masks every week for at least two weeks) as it realized that these are critical items for preventing the spread of the coronavirus. But also prevented hoarding and removed excuses for not having one (for the Crime science geeks out there, it was some beautifully implemented situational “crime” prevention (SCP)(Clarke 1980) — replace “crime” with corona — SCP puts situational measures in place to reduce crime (increasing the effort, increasing the risk, reducing rewards, provocations and removing excuses).
- People were not allowed to go to public places or have any public gatherings, essentially implementing social distancing — from day one. People were strongly encouraged not to travel abroad and anyone who flew into Taiwan was quarantined for two weeks — sounds familiar? Yes, it is what we’re going through now right? Only 2 months later..
- Most importantly and most impressive is Taiwan’s use of technology. After SARS, it had activated a National Health Command Centre, which allowed the government in case of an outbreak to use Big data and integrated data-sets (the National Health Insurance database and Immigration & Customs database) so as to control it. What that means is that doctors were able to see their patients’ 14-day travel history to enable them to provide relevant actions: ask those who visited high-risk areas to self-isolate, likewise at the immigration office, those who had not been to a high-risk area received a text and were able to go through the immigration clearance faster. Taiwan opted for automating the entrance of people into buildings (malls, offices, community centres and places of worship) with temperature readings; Hot? Enter the building you cannot.
- It didn’t only use the data from it’s citizens, but also made sure it’s citizens had easy access to information. It educated it’s public and was transparent with updates on the virus as well as preventative measures against the infection (through the radio and TV).
- To assist the quarantine and enforce the restrictions, Taiwan used mobile phones to track that people were staying home by location data. If you didn’t stay home you got fined, but they would call 3 times a day to check up on your symptoms — second mom or crazy ex-girlfriend?
- It might also make a difference (and this is of course completely by the by) that Taiwan’s vice president is apparently a trained epidemiologist (insert shrug emoji here).
So it is probably not the best time to say “I told you so” as London (finally decides) to go on lock-down — and no I will not get into the fact that we weren’t the fastest respondents here yet alone leaders in taking first initiative for public safety — but it might be time to take a second look at the efforts that I and other researchers put in our line of work. We will get past Covid-19, but it won’t be the last — as it hasn’t been the first (see nice info-graphic here). The increasing global population puts an extra pressure on our environment as we move closer to wildlife. At the same time, technology is developing at great speeds that if we don’t move as fast in a more proactive way, we risk falling victim — time and time again — to outdated security in what is now Programmable Biology.
I’m currently running a (not so future) Futures study with the aim to safeguard against biological events, in light of the current pandemic that we are experiencing. So if you are a biosecurity / biosafety professional, an expert synthetic biologist or a biohacker, please do take part, I want to hear from you! It is an anonymous online questionnaire and shouldn’t take more than 15–20 minutes of your time to complete, but may drastically improve our future responses!
- Gardner L. Update January 31: modeling the spreading risk of 2019-nCoV. Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Published 2020. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://systems.jhu.edu/research/public-health/ncov-model-2