Rarely has the promise of biology commanded as much of the world’s attention as it has during the COVID-19 crisis. As the novel coronavirus infects millions worldwide and ravages the global economy, our best hope to overcome it is a new and rapidly evolving generation of biological tools and capabilities. But addressing COVID-19 only scratches the surface of what biological innovation can do.
Advances in biological sciences have been gathering pace since the human genome was mapped – a 13-year process completed in 2003. As new research from the McKinsey Global Institute shows, the resulting bio-revolution has been driven by rapid progress in computing, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI).
MGI’s research identified about 400 biotech applications already visible in the pipeline of innovation, which together could generate up to $4 trillion annually over the next 1-2 decades. More than half of that would fall outside the realm of human health, in domains such as agriculture and food, consumer products and services, and materials, chemicals, and energy production.
More than half of the impact is outside of healthcare in agriculture, consumer, and other areas.
But the ultimate impact of the bio-revolution will be orders of magnitude larger. For example, as much as 60% of the global economy’s physical inputs could, in principle, be produced using biological means. This includes not only biological materials (one-third), but also goods produced using innovative biological processes, such as bioplastics (two-thirds). Such goods could offer superior performance and sustainability.
Moreover, biological innovation could reduce the global disease burden by 1-3% – roughly equivalent to the combined burden of lung, breast, and prostate cancer – in the next 10-20 years. If the full potential of these innovations is realized, the global disease burden could be reduced by 45%.
Reaching that point will require us to overcome many challenges, both from a scientific perspective and in terms of commercializing and scaling up innovations. But here, too, there are promising trends. For starters, the cost of mapping the human genome has plummeted – from roughly $3 billion in 2003 to less than $1,000 in 2016. That figure could drop to less than $100 within a decade.
The full genome of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19 – was sequenced and published within weeks of its identification. By contrast, it took several months to sequence and publish the genome of SARS-CoV-1, the virus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome, after it emerged in 2002. Now, the SARS-CoV-2 genome is being regularly sequenced in different locations, in order to examine mutations and gain insight into transmission dynamics.
Another facet of the biological innovation being deployed against COVID-19 is the substantial improvement in the speed of diagnostics. Likewise, the continual miniaturization of reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) machines, state of the art for COVID-19 testing, has made the technology more accessible for use in the field.
Then there is machine learning and other AI technologies, which scientists are leveraging to gain insights from huge amounts of genomic (and microbiomic) data much faster than ever before. These capabilities – together with faster and more versatile nucleic-acid-based vaccine production – have accelerated the search for a COVID-19 vaccine considerably.
By mid-April – less than four months after COVID-19 was officially identified – there were more than 150 vaccine candidates in labs around the world. After the Zika epidemic began in 2015, it took more than a year to launch phase 1 clinical trials on a possible vaccine.
But the ability to analyze biological systems and processes is only part of the story. At the heart of today’s bio-revolution is our growing capacity to “engineer” biology using modern gene-editing tools, such as CRISPR-Cas9. With SARS-CoV-2, genetically engineered organisms have been used to develop potential therapies. For example, mice have been genetically engineered to produce monoclonal antibodies, and cows to produce polyclonal antibodies.
Furthermore, scientists are exploring COVID-19 treatments that use siRNA to interfere with specific molecules, or RNAi to suppress certain genes. Other treatments rely on T-cells (key players in the immune system) and stem cells (which can be used to make different types of cells). In total, over 200 potential COVID-19 therapies are currently being investigated.
Our increasingly sophisticated ability to mine insights from genomic (and microbiomic) data, and to engineer cells, tissues, and organs, has applications far beyond human health. Already, it is being applied in sectors as diverse as agriculture and the manufacture of textiles and fuels. And a new frontier is emerging: brain-machine interface. Applications powered directly by signals from the brain would not only drive a revolution in prosthetics; they could also make possible DNA data storage.
The risks of such ground-breaking innovations should not be underestimated. For one thing, unequal access to biological innovations could deepen socioeconomic disparities – within and across countries. Moreover, biological systems are fundamentally self-sustaining and self-replicating. Interfering with them could have profound, long-lasting, and often unpredictable effects on ecosystems. When Pandora’s box is opened, what happens next may be beyond our control.
The value of investment in biological innovation is never as apparent as during a pandemic. But such investment must be accompanied by rigorous risk-mitigation efforts, ideally pursued in a globally coordinated way. Unfortunately, as the largely national-level responses to COVID-19 demonstrate, this may pose its own challenge.
This article first appeared in Project Syndicate.