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Experts: Expanding biotechnology research in developing countries key to countering bioterrorism

Call for world scientists' network to keep vigil on biotechnology misuse

Experts at the Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health warn that global efforts to combat bioterrorism are on a potential collision course with legitimate biotechnology pursuits that hold the promise of improving life for millions of the world's poorest people.

In a report released Feb. 27, DNA for Peace: Reconciling Biodevelopment and Biosecurity,* the CPGGH, part of the University of Toronto's Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB), calls for a global network of scientists to both promote biotechnology research to fight disease, hunger and poverty, especially in the developing world, and to keep vigil against the misuse of biological science.

The report, online at www.utoronto.ca/jcb/home/news_bioterrorism.htm, calls on world leaders at the G8 meeting in July 2006 to establish a global network to help resolve potential conflicts between bioterrorism control and biotechnology development.

"The need to foster bioscience for development, and the pursuit of biosecurity are in a delicate balance," says study co-author Peter A. Singer, MD. "Our report says: lead with biodevelopment, and biosecurity will follow. Lead with biosecurity, and we may end up with neither. It recommends industrialized countries invest in scientific facilities and personnel abroad, to gain legitimacy to also ensure that those facilities, and bioscience facilities more generally, take appropriate precautions against science misuse.

The CPGGH report says investing in and fostering biotechnology development internationally - building the capacity to discover new vaccines or drugs to combat HIV-AIDS and malaria, for example, to reduce pollution or improve crop yields - will create the environment and conditions within which to fight bioterrorism, especially in the developing world, by building the network of experts needed to spot attempts to misuse the science. According to Dr. Singer, the proposed international network strategy is akin to asking public transit riders or airport travelers to be alert to and report suspicious activities.

The report was based in part on results of a November workshop that convened 29 international experts at the New York Academy of Sciences. The workshop was funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Ontario Research and Development Challenge Fund, Genome Canada, and the Ontario Genomics Institute. It builds upon a January 2006 recommendation from a US National Academies committee - of which Dr. Singer was a member - for the promotion of a common culture of awareness, and a shared sense of responsibility to prevent misuse within the global community of scientists.

"Protecting people against bioterrorism is important - as is protecting against the entrenched scourges of disease, poverty, hunger and environmental degradation," says co-author Abdallah S. Daar, MD, a member of the African Union's High-Level Biotechnology Panel, Director of Ethics and Policy at the McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine and co-director with Dr. Singer of the CPGGH. "We must be very careful that addressing the needs of the 90% of humankind that lives in the developing world is not compromised by an unbalanced emphasis on bio-security.

"Though it may sound counter-intuitive, the most promising way to ensure the peaceful use of modern biotechnology is first to build international biotechnology science capacity, which always goes with the development of regulatory regimes, professional codes of conduct and often with international collaborations. It is these that will mitigate against misuse. Bioscience promises profound benefits for the health, well-being and prosperity of all of humanity, especially for those in poor countries, and must be given high priority," says Dr. Daar.

The G-8, working with heads of state from the developing world, is in the best position to help ensure that a strong global community of scientists is created to protect against the potential risks that could result from carelessness or misuse with respect to this science, he adds.

Co-author Elizabeth Dowdeswell, former UN Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UNEP, says that unlike highly guarded nuclear science, much of biotechnology science is freely disseminated in open literature and its pursuit requires relatively little capital investment.

"So much of bioscience information is in the public domain. We cannot create an agency to inspect tens of thousands of biotech labs around the world. What we can do, indeed the one strategy that makes sense, is to expand and illuminate the pursuit of this science, to enhance its transparency worldwide."

She added that the network's other objectives could include raising public awareness and understanding, providing a forum for exchange of views, being a neutral and authoritative disseminator of information, shaping institutional and public policy, promoting technology, building capacity, and evaluating and assessing initiatives.

Says Dr. Singer: "India, China, Singapore, Korea, South Africa, and Brazil are all at various stages of becoming powerhouses in the biological sciences. Even a relatively small and poor country like Cuba has a strong biotechnology capacity: it has, for example, developed the world's first vaccine against meningitis B. This global dispersion of science mandates a global approach to ensuring the science is not misused, intentionally or carelessly, to fuel next generation bio-weapons."

"Bioterrorists require darkness to succeed. The global network approach we advocate will shine as much light as possible on this science to increase its use to fight disease and hunger and reduce the risk of it being used with malevolent intent.

"In effect we are calling for an 'IAEA of biotechnology' - not with a team of IAEA-type inspectors, though, but an expanding global network of scientists,\\\

University of Toronto Joint Center for Bioethics. February 2006.

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