Andrey Zarur, Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology, explains how biotechnology can fight against microscopic threats

Imagine this scenario: a child arrives at a hospital emergency room with a fever of 104°F, dehydrated and exhausted. She has been throwing up all night and her parents have been unable to bring down the fever. This scene is familiar in every ER around the world, from the most developed countries to villages in most remote corners of the planet. And yet, a simple twist in this story would transform it from a long nervous night for parents and their child to a catastrophic event of global proportions: a new antigen, resistant to today’s therapies and able to jump rapidly from patient to patient could create a pandemic capable of claiming millions of lives.

At every instant, bacteria and viruses, the main causes of potentially lethal infections in humans, are being transmitted from patient to patient. Most of these micro-organisms are well known and well understood and, for most of them, biotechnology has yielded effective treatments to keep them in check. However, with every jump to a new patient, with every change of season, and with every exposure to a new environment, these micro-organisms are capable of mutating into new strains, which, in turn, become resistant to available treatments.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria have emerged, mostly in hospitals in developed countries, posing a threat of global proportions. It is imperative, therefore, that the world’s medical community continually develops means of identifying new pathogens and develops new weapons to control them.

Enter biotechnology. Tools developed over the past 50 years allow scientists in disease control centres across the globe to rapidly isolate and identify infection agents. Potential global health threats, such as SARS and H1N1 influenza, have been staved off thanks to their rapid identification and the implementation of precautions and medical treatment. Furthermore, biotechnology is also capable of rapidly developing potential vaccines and either anti-viral or anti-bacterial treatments once an antigen has been identified.

Biotechnology represents the ability to identify and fight a microscopic enemy. Without it we would be blinded and bound as we face more serious threats to health globally.

Author: Andrey Zarur is Member of the Board, Boston Museum of ScienceManaging Partner of Kodiak Venture PartnersSenior Lecturer at MIT Sloan School of Management and Vice-Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Biotechnology

 Image: The genetic sequence for the H1N1 virus is displayed on a computer screen REUTERS/REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst