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Published by Ars Synthetica

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Published by: Ars Synthetica on Jul 10, 2009
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Case 5, 2007
A Diagnosis of Biosecurity:1. Synthetic Biology & 2. Syndromic-Surveillance
Lyle Fearnley and Anthony Stavrianakis
2This paper is framed as a diagnosis of biosecurity through two case studies: syndromic surveillance andlaboratory biosecurity within, but not limited to, synthetic biology. Both cases address the problem of how to effectively deal with futures which cannot be known on the basis of risks and probabilities. Thenormative demand to deal with unexpected futures is a norm of security that the Anthropology of theContemporary collaborative (http://anthropos-lab.net) has called preparedness.As a technical term, preparedness is a way of thinking about and responding to significant problems thatare likely to occur (e.g. a bioterrorist attack or the spread of a deadly virus), but whose probabilitycannot be feasibly calculated, and whose specific form cannot be determined in advance.
 Through this diagnosis, we suggest that the non-probabilistic character of contemporary biologicalproblems requires attention to biopreparedness, in addition to biosecurity and biosafety.In the disease surveillance case, we show that new understandings of emerging diseases exposed theinsufficiency of existing risk-based public health. The case examines how local public health departmentsand federal government agencies turned to a new technology
known as syndromic surveillance
torebuild a capability to detect the unexpected epidemic. In the laboratory, on the other hand, thedominant mode of security is still probabilistic risk management and the reduction of security totechnical safeguards. The second set of case materials suggest that, as with the forward lookingtechnologies in syndromics, laboratory practice must find methods for thinking and responding toevents whose probability cannot be calculated. Given the concerns from organizations such as the
NSABB with national security and the development of “responsible” science, how can these concerns be
made a part of laboratory practice? This is the question of finding venues, both inside and outside thelaboratory and connecting them to methods that develop preparedness capabilities.Syndromic surveillance technologies have been built, but there remains the problem of how toincorporate them into public health practice
This is the problem of connecting methods to venues, aproblem demanding the invention of equipment. Such invention must ask: what are the organizationalnorms and forms through which these techniques and technologies can be incorporated into aneffective practice? Historically public health managed disease in terms of risks and probabilities. Theeffective use of syndromic surveillance necessarily involves a re-working of public health practicethrough the invention of new equipment.As a diagnosis, the paper locates both blockages and opportunities at stake in the development of biopreparedness equipment. Why use a diagnostic? Or rather, what is it that diagnosis does and does

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