HONG KONG -- When it comes to China and biotechnology, U.S. policy is influenced by a mix of economic considerations, geopolitical issues, reasonable fears and excessive paranoia. All were on display at a congressional committee hearing on the subject in Washington last year.
The hearing -- "China's Pursuit of Next Frontier Tech: Computing, Robotics and Biotechnology" -- was held to examine the national security implications of China's growth as a tech powerhouse. The committee noted that China's five-year industrial plan, outlined in 2016, sought to push further into "dual-use" technologies that have civilian and military applications.
Kenneth Oye, director of the Program on Emerging Technologies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told the congressional hearing that the problem with biotechnology is that it is possible for even helpful advances to be used in bad ways. "It will be difficult to check the potential for malevolent misuse of advanced biotechnologies," he said.
Oye added ominously that there are "novel threats that I do not wish to discuss in an open hearing. Because advanced biotechnologies cannot be stuffed back in the bottle and will diffuse, addressing potential security risks is a wicked difficult problem."
The CIA has been fretting about biological and chemical warfare for decades. Its concerns have always included infectious agents responsible for anthrax, cholera, pneumonic plague and smallpox. In the 1990s, the CIA's fear was applied more to individual terrorist organizations -- or cults such as Aum Shinrikyo, which launched an attack on the Tokyo Metro in 1995 -- than to countries.
These days, though, the U.S. security establishment is becoming more concerned about "the countries with pharmaceutical and medical industries [that] possess the knowledge and tools to develop biological weapons," according to a2015 report called "The Biological Threat," produced by the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
Yet the fears about China's biotech industry seem to eclipse all others, despite the fact that there are over a dozen countries that are believed to have such capabilities -- including such unstable nations as Libya, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
The NTI report noted that "it's difficult to tell the difference between legitimate and harmful biological research."
"Advances in the life sciences hold extraordinary promise for new treatments and cures for disease, but the same knowledge -- and equipment -- can be used to engineer deadly pathogens," it said. "Rapid advances in biotechnology mean that most countries with pharmaceutical and medical industries possess the knowledge and tools to develop biological weapons."
"We are talking about a very near future where there potentially could be biological extortion, exploitation"Edward You, FBI special agent
Oye said the "central issue" is the extent to which "superiority in biotechnology translates into market power and political power."
"This is not an area where cornering markets or creating cartels is viable," he said. "But the good news on economic effects is bad news on security."
The view of Edward You, a special agent in the FBI's Biological Countermeasures Unit, was even darker. During the hearing, he said security officials seemed blind to dangerous emerging threats.
"When you talk about biosecurity, most of the policy focuses on pathogens, bacteria, viruses and toxins," he told the hearing. "Because we narrowly defined what constitutes a biological threat [that] has rendered us somewhat vulnerable ... we haven't had our eyes on the ball as [to] where biotech is taking us."
Instead, security agencies should consider how highly sensitive medical data could be used by hackers, citing the 2015 hack of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management as a precedent. American officials have suggested that China was behind the large-scale cyberattack.
"We are talking about a very near future where there potentially could be biological extortion, exploitation," You told the committee. "If an adversary knows what your potential medical fate might be, or those of your family members or your children, that could be leveraged against [you]."
In such a scenario, current policies and law enforcement practices are "going to be challenged," You said.