We already talk about how to maintain US leadership in biotechnology. Public funding is subsidizing R&D to maintain this leadership. We understand this as an effort to maintain economic growth, but it’s also a way to build geopolitical strength.
The US obviously invests directly in military power, which we project around the world with overseas bases, aircraft carriers, and nuclear submarines. But we also invest in soft power, delivering humanitarian aid, securing trade routes, and negotiating disputes among countries.
Biotechnology is a reserve of soft power. It can be used to deliver humanitarian aid, secure commerce, and build global incentives favorable to US hegemony.
COVID-19 made it clear that emerging infectious disease threatens global trade. Can we use biotechnology to “secure the sea lanes?” We know that many biotechnology products require cold chain. What if we invested in securing “cold supply lines” around the world with the same zeal we protect oil tankers in the gulf? What if we lead the establishment of worldwide standards for infectious disease screening of passengers at ports of entry?
Historically, we’ve projected biopower as a form of humanitarian aid. We intervened in the 2015 Ebola outbreak. The US State Department funds ongoing health-related foreign aid projects. Most interesting is PEPFAR, which primarily distributes antiretroviral drugs and HIV diagnostics throughout Africa.
PEPFAR is quite unusual as a global health intervention. It essentially takes what we have here in the US and gives it away to poor nations. Should we be doing that more often? Should we be doing it for more drugs, more diagnostics, and more diseases? Should we create a program, for example, to aggressively vaccinate against flu and SARS, all around the world, at our expense?
This is obviously an expensive proposition. PEPFAR’s 2020 budget was $7 billion. USAID’s budget is $19 billion. Even if we were to negotiate “at cost” rates for all these drugs, a global SARS/Flu intervention would exceed our entire global aid budget. Is it worth it?
Any such program would surely buy American drugs and diagnostics. It could be restricted to companies that manufacture their drugs domestically. It would amount to a massive subsidy of American biotech, and therefore, an investment in our long-term economic advantages. Plus, it would send Americans around the globe, saving lives. There’s a reason why investments in global security usually have a few more zeroes than investments in global public health. We foot the bill because they’re ultimately investments in our own geopolitical power.
This brings us to the last point: biotechnology isn’t just soft power. Infectious disease is a weapon waiting to be wielded. We rightly ban bioweapons, but we can’t assume that everyone else will continue to do the same. Projecting biopower around the world increasing the chance that our first engagement with bioweapons is likely to be over there, not here.