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Research Questions

  1. What is the potential for a bioterrorist to develop a synthetic pandemic, a human-induced event applying engineering principles to biology, that would be capable of sustained human-to-human transmission?
  2. What are potential limitations or challenges a nefarious actor would have to overcome in perpetrating such an act?
  3. What are the threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences associated with a synthetic viral pathogen being used in developing a pandemic?

Throughout history, pandemics have been a risk to human existence. Experts have warned with increasing frequency about the risk of naturally occurring pandemics, yet the emergence of the virus that causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) brought a renewed global attention to the threats associated with pandemics. Experts now warn that humans are at increasing risk for more naturally occurring global pandemics, largely due to a wide variety of human activities. Advances in biotechnology and humans' growing capacity to program the essence of life extends to the deliberate use of biotechnology to develop biological weapons (BWs), including a pathogen that could be used to cause a synthetic pandemic.

In considering the potential for a synthetic pandemic, researchers assessed whether a pathogen could be developed applying engineering principles to biology that would be capable of sustained, human-to-human transmission and causing mortality and morbidity. And, if so, how would such an engineered pandemic compare with a naturally occurring spillover event? Specifically, the authors determined that either (1) the deliberate release of an engineered pathogen by a state or bioterrorist as a weapon or (2) an inadvertent release of an engineered pathogen from a research laboratory could result in a synthetic pandemic; for this assessment, in keeping with the sponsor's interest, their primary focus was on a bioterrorist attack scenario.

The researchers considered technology availability, as well as risks and scenarios (threats, vulnerabilities, and consequences), in the next three years, three to five years, and five to ten years.

Key Findings

  • Biotechnology will continue to become more readily available, more capable, easier to use, and less expensive and require a smaller footprint.
  • Increasing availability of technological capability and knowledge would increase the potential for a successful bioterrorist attack. Countries — especially those with large pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors — would experience few impediments to developing BWs. Larger, more-capable terrorist groups would see advantages that could lead to development of large-scale bioterrorism weapon capabilities. Smaller, less skilled groups would likely still be challenged.
  • Ribonucleic acid (RNA) viruses represent the likeliest of the viral agents to cause a future pandemic. RNA viruses are likeliest to infect new host species because of their shorter generation times and faster evolutionary rates.
  • Although engineering a synthetic pathogen to create a pandemic will become easier, engineering the desired pathogen characteristics while maintaining competence in viral replication would still be difficult.
  • The fact that a pathogen has been modified does not mean that it will be more effective than a naturally occurring virus in causing a pandemic.
  • The uncertainties surrounding the transmissibility and virulence of a synthetic pandemic pathogen make the risks of synthetic and naturally occurring pandemics similar, except in the initial release of a synthetic pathogen during which victims in the initial BW release plume would likely experience overwhelming doses, which could result in reduced incubation times, greater severity of the disease, and higher mortality and morbidity rates.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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