States will pass through a series of broad stages on the path to developing and deploying biological weapons. There are characteristics typical of states and actors at each stage, and these characteristics can serve as tripwires to identify if a group is poised to become more or less of a biosecurity threat. We identify four stages: (1) the indication of an interest in synthetic biology, (2) the achievement of scientific, technological, and engineering capacity for synthetic biology, (3) the development or acquisition of synthetic biology weapons, and finally, (4) the deployment of synthetic biology weapons. Stage 1 is further broken down into top-down and bottom-up initiatives, while Stage 3 is broken down into homegrown development of weapons and acquisition from external sources.
This section concludes with a discussion on technological tripwires, or advancements in the techniques and technology used in synthetic biology which will drastically increase what people are capable of doing with synthetic biology. A summary of different tripwires can be found in Table 14.1.
14.3.1 Regime Characteristics that Could Lead to Synthetic Biology Weapons Development and Their Tripwires
This section provides a preliminary process model, developed through the distillation of various country profiles, of the steps leading to the deployment of synthetic biology weapons. This process model lists the outward signs a country can project in its path to weapons development, and proposes actions that might be taken to engage with countries at each stage of the process. Figure 14.1 shows an example process model, in the form of an event tree, which might be used by the US.
This section also lists potential tripwires that can be used to identify when a country is moving into a new stage and becoming more or less of a biosecurity threat. These can include alterations in a nation’s (a) incentives to engage in Dual-Use Research of Concern (DURC), (b) degree of security and control over institutional and individual activity in the synthetic biology space, and/or (c) potential for a militarization of synthetic biology and its enabling technologies.
188.8.131.52 Stage 1a. Bottom-Up Initiative: Independent Actors Indicate Interest in Synthetic Biology
Corporate, academic, and other non-governmental actors may have incentives to pursue the development of synthetic biology. In this stage of the process model, the economic incentives can indicate the value of various non-weapon applications of synthetic biology, including in the fields of energy, pharmaceuticals, agriculture, and medical applications. Thus, any monitoring of the synthetic biology domain during this stage will require an understanding of any influential economic fields that could benefit from synthetic biology development, particularly fields with high Dual-Use Research of Concern (DURC) applicability. Profit motivation is a large tripwire for signaling a bottom-up interest in synthetic biology. If individuals or institutions perceive that a profit can be made through the use of synthetic biology, then they are more likely to become interested.
Bottom-up actors interested in developing synthetic biology may also be responding to an impetus other than economics. For example, academics who studied abroad may wish to continue their research by opening a synthetic biology laboratory in their home country. Without the direct input of the government, bottom-up development is more likely to be directly related to the ambitions and profits of small academic or commercial entities, both of which have low incentives to prioritize weapons development and high incentives to be transparent about their work (especially during the beginning stage when they might be acquiring important partners or support).
Information hazards are a tripwire to watch for groups moving from an interest in synthetic biology to achievement of synthetic biology capabilities (Stage 2). An information hazard can be defined as: “A risk that arises from the dissemination of (true) information that may cause harm or enable some agent to cause harm.” Such a hazard may arise through data spillage of classified and/or sensitive information related to scientific and/or technological capabilities to acquire, engineer, test, and/or build DURC-related research and products. Typically, an information hazard is seen as the “critical cornerstone on the bridge from inspiration to actualization” of a biological weapon or harmful engineered biological product (Esvelt 2018; Kirkpatrick et al. 2018).
In order to address this, some countries have a strong culture of “self-governance,” whereby teams of scientists proactively tackle DURC concerns before, during, and after the completion of a research project. However, other states (in particular, many East Asian and Southeast Asian nations) lack this custom, instead expecting biosecurity management to come from powerful government officials who have limited knowledge of or expertise in the research being performed. The publication of DURC with little legitimate commercial and/or social utility (i.e., the recombination of extinct human pathogens) should be monitored, and actions to reduce the occurrence of such publication should be taken at the institutional, editorial, or state level. New partnerships or mergers between companies and/or universities, or the creation of research consortia, the membership of which comprises representatives from multiple nations, could indicate the risk of a bottom-up information hazard leading to a nation gaining synthetic biology capabilities. Monitoring should be conducted to see if the new partnerships or mergers include members who would increase biosecurity (e.g., watchdog NGOs and/or participants with an established record of compliance with the BWC) or decrease it (e.g., participants with a record of noncompliance).
Countries currently developing bottom-up initiatives in synthetic biology include Iran, where academics have begun attending international topical conferences, Saudi Arabia, where the King Abdullah University has a program in synthetic biology, and Ukraine, where several universities offer coursework in synthetic biology.
Bottom-up initiatives in synthetic biology do not indicate a lack of support from the governing regime, only a lack of coordinated efforts. Bottom-up initiatives can also provide impetus for top-down initiatives (Step 1b).
184.108.40.206 Stage 1b. Top-Down Initiative: Regime Indicates Interest in Synthetic Biology
A coordinated top-down effort to support synthetic biology research can emerge from a governing regime independent of whether bottom-up activities are already occurring. Because synthetic biology is a DURC technology, any regime publicly signaling its interest in developing synthetic biology capabilities has potentially taken an early step on the path of synthetic biology weapons development. The funding and other incentives made available could hypothetically be used to direct research in a way that benefits the government itself, including through weapons development. However, many products of synthetic biology are not and cannot be used as weapons: interest in synthetic biology does not necessarily indicate nefarious intentions or the desire to develop a weapons program. Accordingly, the economic context of research ambitions and their relationship with other regime ambitions is highly relevant to any evaluation of the government’s intentions. Monitoring of countries in this stage should relate the synthetic biology ambitions of the regime to other stated ambitions, such as exports they may seek to expand. In this way, profit motivation is also a top-down tripwire for indicating when a regime is likely to become interested in pursuing synthetic biology.
Information hazards are also an important tripwire for a top-down initiative moving from interest to capacity. For synthetic biology, Esvelt and Kirkpatrick et al. note the importance of states as protectors against information hazards that could inspire rogue militaries, terrorist groups, companies, or even individuals to learn and pursue synthetic biology research. Increasingly, however, the capacity for centralized governments to regulate biosecurity information hazards is becoming prohibitively difficult due to the globalized and increasingly diversified nature of synthetic biology research (Trump et al. 2020).
220.127.116.11 Stage 2. Achievement of Scientific, Technological, and Engineering Capacity for Synthetic Biology
Following an expression of interest and subsequent investment in synthetic biology, groups or individuals within a country may successfully develop synthetic biology applications. During this stage of synthetic biology development, monitoring should occur. Academic publications as well as commercial patents, products, and processes are worthy of being monitored, as they can all facilitate greater understanding of a country’s internal synthetic biology capabilities. Exchanges of human capital are another source of information, though this may be more difficult to observe or monitor, especially within corporate structures. It is, however, possible that although corporate profit motivations cause actors to conceal specific details of their work, the overall capabilities are still evident in the final products.
Tripwires that would indicate a country at this stage as being more or less of a biosecurity threat include public health crises and geopolitical alignment. Public health crises can take the form of epidemics, sustainability crises, pollution, or other events where public health is directly threatened by a catalyst. Whether targeting humans, animals, crops, or the natural environment, epidemics represent the most visible and urgent of public health crises relevant to biosecurity. In such crises, states are incentivized to bend or relax established rules and norms regarding biological safety in search of vaccines, treatments, and cures for the disease. Such a relaxation of biological safety standards could become a biosecurity concern. The pressure and financial incentives to foster interventions for public health crises can drive institutional actors to ignore biosecurity rules, share sensitive information that may be applied to DURC, or otherwise facilitate the development of DURC products and materials that would otherwise, in non-emergency situations, be more closely scrutinized.
Geopolitical alignment refers to the alliances, agreements, or participations to which a state voluntarily commits itself. The development of shared scientific research or collaborative agreements between states can signal movement in the strength of a state’s biosecurity intentions and enforcement capabilities, both directly and indirectly. Tripwires relating to geopolitical alignment include direct participation within collaborative security agreements like the BWC, which would indicate a state’s biosecurity threat is reduced, or indirect partnerships with other states that have a strong or weak biosecurity record. The potential increased capabilities and reduced biosecurity-biosafety standards indicated by this tripwire represent a hazard that can benefit non-state actors as well.
During this stage, monitoring should encompass laboratory construction, whether private, academic, or governmental, with special attention to features in construction that suggest clandestine laboratory spaces, as well as any synthetic biology funding sources and their disbursements. The exchange of human capital between countries with different competence levels can help indicate the direction of research and future capabilities, and the quality of both bottom-up and top-down biosecurity initiatives will reveal the ease with which researchers could skirt biosecurity guidelines, regulations, and laws for their own benefit. Finally, the published outputs and marketed products will provide insight into the level of synthetic biology capabilities within the country. Economic incentives, including potential clients for weapons exports, should continue to be monitored.
18.104.22.168 Stage 3a. Active Development of Synthetic Biology Weapons
Once competence in synthetic biology is achieved, it is possible that some synthetic biology research may be directed into national laboratories for state-funded weapons development purposes. These laboratories do not have the same transparency practices as academic or corporate actors, and it should be assumed that such weapons development will not be reported to the international community. Monitoring of countries in this stage may include tracking the flow of experienced human capital from for-profit or academic sectors into government sectors, with special attention to gaps or abrupt decreases in publications. This could indicate clandestine synthetic biology development under regime funding, which could indicate offensive purposes.
Additionally, independent actors may pursue weapons development outside of their government institutions, if provided the correct incentives by patrons. Given access to sufficiently powerful technology, independent actors may harness it for nefarious purposes if the benefits would be useful or worthwhile to them and exceed the benefits of abiding by existing biosecurity frameworks. Similarly, profit motivation could also lead countries and sub-state actors to develop biological weapons at the behest of a partner nation or client, making profit motivation a tripwire for entering this stage.
A state’s record of internal strife and recent or ongoing external conflict can be used as another tripwire for a state or sub-state actor’s willingness to develop a synthetic biology weapon or to move to Stage 4, the deployment of such a weapon. While a past record of such conflict can help characterize a state’s likelihood to embrace biological weapons, its position in ongoing or potential conflict in the near term serves as an especially significant tripwire of concern. External conflict, or active combat between two or more states, is a tripwire of concern as it incentivizes a government to pursue force multipliers or scientific innovations that will provide an edge in combat. Such a tripwire is particularly enticing for middle income states that are currently fighting or may fight a state of comparable or even superior power. For example, Iraq under Saddam Hussein deployed chemical weapons against poorly-armed yet highly-motivated and organized Iranian forces (Ali 2001; Szinicz 2005). Iraq increased its use of unconventional weapons as the war dragged on and as conventional Iraqi armor, aircraft, machines, and weaponry were exhausted.
For external conflict, biological weapons represent (a) a first-strike capability, capable of crippling enemy health, armor, or agriculture, (b) a force multiplier, capable of providing an edge against a near evenly-matched foe, or (c) a survival mechanism to attack an enemy who has the upper hand in a conventional war, where the losing party becomes increasingly desperate to fend off attacks and ensure survival. Internal conflict includes, among other scenarios, civil war, riots, and other forms of civil strife or internal dissension. Chemical and biological weapons have been considered and/or deployed as a means of (a) instilling fear and control over parties in dissent against the regime, or (b) as a force multiplier to inflict mass casualties against an overwhelming rebellious force. As an example of (a), the government of Syria – which began to seek unconventional weapons in the 1990s – deployed chemical weapons as Syrian Government forces began to lose ground in the Syrian Civil War (Eisenkraft and Falk 2019; Diab 1997). An example of (b) is the apartheid government in South Africa’s active development, testing, and deployment of biological weapons to assassinate key anti-government figures and to serve as a weapon of last resort to quell a mass revolt against the government (Hay 2016).
Monitoring efforts for countries in this stage may include monitoring imports, exports, information transfers, and general geopolitical relationships with other governments, especially those engaged in belligerence elsewhere, either domestically or internationally. Efforts should also include monitoring whether a state or non-state actor has or will be challenged by a powerful force against which conventional armaments may be insufficient to ensure survival, or if there is the potential for widespread civil strife or civil war. Sufficient indications of clandestine synthetic biology development at this stage may necessitate active interventions rather than passive monitoring, though the monitoring specified in Stage 2 should also continue. Interventions could include overtures to encourage the state to join international biosecurity efforts like the BWC and UN Resolution 1540 if it has not done so already, or to submit to routine or supplemental monitoring according to the circumstances. There are currently no countries that have publicly admitted to pursuing or possessing synthetic biology weapons capabilities.
22.214.171.124 Stage 3b. Acquisition of Synthetic Biology Weapons from an External Source
Countries or non-state actors without synthetic biology capabilities may choose to forgo developing domestic technological capabilities if they are able to acquire synthetic biology weapons through other avenues. This requires access to competence elsewhere, either through existing relationships or through building new ones. Regimes possessing advanced technological capabilities may attract actors with inclinations to learn and then use these capabilities for violence, as was the case with the 9/11 hijackers who trained in U.S. flight schools.
With DURC technologies, weapons development can arise inadvertently through exploration of beneficial uses for innovations. In contrast, actors willing to invest only in weaponized outputs signal a lack of economic interest in peaceable applications for the technology, and for this reason their interest in the weapons applications may indicate a stronger propensity to ultimately deploy them. However, such weapons could also serve as a tool of deterrence against another regime, though this would necessitate publicizing capabilities at some point.
It may be difficult to determine when an actor who is aiming to purchase synthetic biology weapons ultimately acquires them. However, regardless of how far along in the process of acquiring these weapons an actor is, situation monitoring can entail disincentives for armament, whether economic assistance or coercive or offensive actions. Such actors may be best identified through their relationships with competent synthetic biology developers, whose outputs, collaborators, and clients should already be being monitored according to Stage 2. If a particular vendor appears to be on the cusp of selling a weapon, engagement can involve encouraging the vendor to increase their biosecurity processes as well as public engagement with the deal, since the public may be uncomfortable with selling synthetic biology weapons, especially to the type of belligerent actors likely to seek them.
126.96.36.199 Stage 4. Deployment of Synthetic Biology Weapons
Whether weapons are produced domestically or acquired from external sources, an instigating event will likely need to occur before their deployment. History abounds with examples of events that have triggered offensive actions, including both acute events (the secession of the Confederacy, which started the US Civil War) and chronic events that built over time (as resistance to the Assad regime of Syria mounted, the regime deployed chemical weapons). The nuclear bombs that ended World War II in the Pacific were part of a larger Allied strategy, but the timing of the deployment was more determined by weapons development (Stage 3a) within an extended conflict than a single precipitating factor. Still, even if there is not an acute precipitating event, a regime considering deploying weapons must both have capability and a belligerent relationship with another entity. Thus, any regimes already under surveillance or being engaged according to Steps 2 and 3 should be further engaged in the event of a conflict erupting.
We propose a specific profile for actors at risk of deploying synthetic biology weapons, which can constitute a means to identify them and evaluate their risk levels. In addition to their geopolitical alignment, which determines whether they have access to the weapons and a reason to deploy them, such actors are likely to be fairly risk tolerant because the spatial and temporal effects of a synthetic biology attack are not currently well-understood. Non-scientist citizens are often averse to new, potentially harmful technologies, and regimes that give those citizens more voice in governance risk paying a high price for such weapon deployment. Citizens from regions that have already suffered the ill effects of scientific advancements may be especially averse to deployment. For example, Ukrainians and Belarussians, who were especially negatively affected by the Chernobyl disaster, and Kazakhis, who have suffered from above-ground nuclear testing sites, may be particularly averse when it comes to the deployment of shadowy, poorly-understood novel weapons. Similarly, countries exhibiting cautionary principles towards genetically modified organisms will be less likely to resort to synthetic biology weapons because of pre-established risk aversion.
However, the opinions of the population only matter if the regime in possession of the weapons is answerable to that population. A risk-tolerant regime may be one characterized more by authoritarianism than democracy, or it may be a group of non-state actors without demarcated constituents. Therefore, one metric to estimate the probability of synthetic weapons deployment could arise from examining a regime’s political participation and human rights record, which indicates its ability to ignore or dehumanize segments of the population. Another metric may be whether the regime’s rhetoric somehow presents itself as insular and separate from the targets of a potential weapons deployment. Reality is frequently subservient to perception, and in moments of high stress, actors who do not answer to a larger and more moderating population and are accustomed to dehumanizing their adversaries may deem the benefits of synthetic biological weapons to be worth the uncertain risks. Therefore, there is a spectrum of likelihood in weapons deployment that depends on various factors beyond weapons possession. Finally, decision makers will weigh these factors against the magnitude of the damage they anticipate if the weapon is not deployed. If they are facing a real or perceived existential threat, they may see no reason for restraint.
Should events proceed to the point where a regime considers launching a synthetic biological weapon, active engagement will be urgently needed. This could include attempts to physically compromise the weapon and the deployment infrastructure, or diplomatic efforts that assure the regime of a sufficiently positive outcome to its conflict without launching the weapons. The latter strategy resembles that used by the US during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, in which the US quickly intervened on Israel’s side in order to sway the tide after Israel threatened to use nuclear weapons. Ideally, such a last-ditch effort would only be necessary after the failure of many other efforts to diminish synthetic biology weapons capacity starting from the time when the actor in question entered hostilities with another entity. This also raises the possibility that governments might threaten to deploy synthetic biology weapons in order to receive assurances. In these cases the information gleaned from earlier monitoring should be able to inform the actual veracity of the threat. Additionally, if sufficient actions are taken in earlier stages of weapons development, such a situation should not arise.
14.3.2 Key Enabling Technologies and Technological Tripwires
Many enabling technologies are key to further progress in synthetic biology. Just as synthetic biology enables potential misuse with dual-use studies or technologies, developments in the technologies or techniques outlined below also allow for dramatic growth of potential security threats by expanding the capabilities of synthetic biology, and therefore the abilities of actors. Understanding the key breakthroughs needed for the expansion of synthetic biology capabilities is necessary for regulatory agencies to anticipate and respond to potential and imminent threats. If regulatory agencies are aware of the relevant technologies and where key breakthroughs are likely to occur, signs of advancements in these technologies can act as tripwires and signal to defense agencies when new threats have emerged due to the now-enhanced capabilities of synthetic biology and malicious actors. It is important to note that as with nearly all aspects of synthetic biology, enhanced synthetic biology capabilities are not in and of themselves normatively “bad”; they will overwhelmingly be put to beneficial uses. However, such technological advancements will also open the door to the creation of more complex or novel biological weapons that aren’t possible with today’s technology, and thus these advancements should be monitored so that novel types of biological weapons can be continually anticipated and defended against as they are developed.
It is also critical to acknowledge the increasing usage and development of computing power and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in scientific advances. Synthetic biology harnesses these resources to improve many different aspects of product production, including fidelity and automation. With major advances in computing and AI, the capabilities of synthetic biology will also expand. While not explicitly mentioned above as a technological tripwire, computing power serves as an undercurrent of development that cannot be ignored. Advances in these particular fields will produce the most radical changes in synthetic biology capabilities and can thus most easily serve as tripwires for observing the capacities of synthetic biology as a whole and subsequently the capabilities of any “malicious actors.”