Understandings of life at the molecular level in the emergence of U.S. civilian biodefence

Christopher Long//International Relations// Wednesday 24th February 2016//1-2pm//Arts C133

Human DNA

How do advances in our understanding of biological life processes shape and influence contemporary security practices?

This presentation analyses the U.S. government’s response to the threat of bioterrorism in conjunction with the fact that it is now at the molecular level at which life is understood and can be manipulated.  It argues that particular understandings of life at the molecular level played a central role in shaping the way this threat came to be understood and acted upon.  Specifically, an understanding of the nature of bacterial resistance was used to frame the threat of bioterrorism as something that cannot be prevented and so must be prepared for.  This political approach, developed in the late 1990s coupled with the terrorist attacks of 2001 – 9/11 and the anthrax mailings – would result in the Bush administration becoming the first in U.S. history to implement a national defence strategy against biological threats.  This strategy, focused on protecting the civilian population would set aside $5.6 billion for the purchase and stockpiling of vaccines and drugs against bioterrorist threats.  Crucially, the development of these new medicines, termed medical countermeasures would capitalise on recent advances in the life sciences, advances which allow us to shape life at the molecular level.  Through the use of tools such as x-ray crystallography, the molecular components and workings of threats such as the anthrax bacteria have been understood.  This has made possible the rational design and synthesis of new drugs and molecules such as the anthrax antitoxin Raxibacumab.  Our ability to understand and manipulate life at the molecular level has become such that, in this instance, they have directly shaped political understandings of security and insecurity.


Chris is currently completing a PhD investigating public-private collaborations in the creation of Medical Countermeasures against bioterrorist threats.  This research forms part of a larger project funded by a grant from the European Research Council (2013-2017) looking at the role of pharmaceutical companies as core actors in health security policy.


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