The Dangerous Connections Between Biodefense and Synthetic Biology
Tuesday 24 July 2012, 4:10pm - 5:10pm


The Massive Expansion of Biodefense from Clinton to Obama: From Defense against Anthrax to Defense against Synthetic Organisms

The past two Tarrytown Meetings have attempted to forge and deepen connections between a variety of issues sorrounding the new human genetic and reproductive technologies. In this special session, Susan Wright and Bob Gould attempted to deepen these connections further by exploring the topic of bioweapons and biodefense. 

Bob Gould covered the history of the development of biological weapons and the evolution of disarmament measures through the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). This included discussion of loopholes in the BWC that have been exploited for ambiguous “biodefense” programs ranging from the Biological Defense Research Program (BDRP) of the Reagan administration through programs exemplified by the current “Project Bioshield.” Attention was given to attempts to widely recruit the medical and public health communities to participate in such programs, as exemplified by the anthrax and smallpox vaccination campaigns. The resistance of health professionals to such campaigns was covered in the context of discussing alternative public health approaches to “biosecurity.”

Susan Wright discussed the history of expansion of the US biodefense programs under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, including: (1) influences on the Clinton administration that generated a major emphasis on bioterrorism as a new biological threat; (2) the dramatization of bioterrorism both before and after the 9/11 attacks and the anthrax mailings; and (3) the massive expansion of biodefense funding (including a huge expansion of BL4 facilities), the growth of secrecy, and initiation and expansion of work on genetically modified and synthetic organisms. How these developments have been promoted and justified was also addressed.

We concluded with some key questions for discussion:

(1)  How can NGOs most effectively generate public understanding of the provocative nature of the current biodefense effort and its impact on biological disarmament under the BWC?

(2)  How do NGOs persuade scientists that huge grants for biodefense are not in their interests?

(3)  How can NGOs most effectively change public health and biomedical research agendas to focus on major health and disease challenges both within the US and globally?

Hartley Room