August 22, 2012

SF Bay Area PSR President Dr. Bob Gould participated in the “Tarrytown Meeting” outside of New York City in July. The Meeting was hosted by the Center for Genetics and Society to “bring together people and organizations working to ensure that human biotechnologies and related emerging technologies support rather than undermine social justice, human rights, ecological integrity and the common good.” Dr. Gould spoke on a panel entitled “The Dangerous Connections Between Biodefense and Synthetic Biology” with Dr. Susan Wright of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The panel was part of the conference’s synthetic biology track, which addressed the potential environmental and public health dangers of new synthetic biology technologies.

Dr. Gould and Dr. Wright’s panel specifically highlighted military issues related to synthetic biology concerns. Dr. Wright spoke about the history of programs purportedly developed to counter alleged bioterrorism threats to the U.S. dating from the Clinton Administration, which have pumped billions of dollars into pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms. The U.S. programs were accelerated after 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax dissemination, the source of which was probably one of the very U.S. government biological programs expanded in this period. Dr. Wright also showed how Pentagon’s DARPA program funded ambiguous “biodefense” work, as well as providing seed money for private, for-profit synthetic biology initiatives posing potential public and environmental health dangers.

Dr. Gould spoke about the history of biodefense programs, which have possibly violated the the Biological Weapons Convention by genetic modification of pathogens such as anthrax, and other programs working with highly lethal agents. Dr. Gould highlighted resistance within the medical and public health community against these programs, including PSR’s opposition to the smallpox vaccination campaign, which was developed as part of the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War. This campaign provoked widespread resistance among health professionals targeted for inoculation. Dr. Gould also addressed PSR’s opposition to the proliferation of high-level Biological Safety Labs that were proposed to work with very dangerous agents, as such programs posed the danger of lethal organisms escaping into surrounding communities and possibly provoking a new biological arms race. Read more about the Tarrytown Meetings.