Two unmistakably positive forces—biotechnology research for combat disease and the race to defend against bioterrorism—are at odds in the developing world, say experts at the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics.
In a report issued last week, the scientists call for a re-focus on biodevelopment, despite international fears that the introduction of bioengineering technology to unstable nations could lead to the production of biological weapons. While the idea of putting security on the back burner may cause anxiety in some camps, the authors of the report see their recommendation as a direct deterrent to terrorism.
“It is in that environment of enlightenment that you’re less likely to get the origins of bioterrorism,” said Abdallah Daar, co-director of the Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health. “If you don’t have that [atmosphere], it’s much easier for a rogue scientist to do stuff in a garage. And no one will notice because nobody has the capacity to notice.”
A primary goal of the report, which Daar coauthored with his colleague Peter A. Singer, is to encourage the G8 nations to create a forum where scientists can share technologies and ideas between the developed world and the developing world. The G8 nations will meet in St. Petersburg, Russia, in July, and the three topics at the top of the meetings’ agenda are infectious diseases, energy security and education.
“We believe that what’s really needed is a network of scientists, with some policy makers and members of the public,” Daar said.
Daar singled out avian flu as an example of a global threat that could be more effectively fought if more biotech labs existed in places like Thailand and Nigeria.
He also said biotechnologies would assist developing nations in other arenas besides protection from disease and biological warfare. The agricultural and economic benefits abound as well: Through a specialized knowledge of genetics, species of crops could be engineered or bred to flourish under salty or dry conditions. Also, the introduction of the industry to developing countries would add jobs and reduce the national costs of healthcare, since most of these nations are currently paying to import drugs and technologies.
“Biotechnology is much, much more important for the future of people in the developing world, compared to the developed world,” Daar said. “It is not about shiny laboratories at MIT. It’s about survival, and it’s about better health and better environments.”
Arthur Caplan, director for the Center of Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that the call for an international bioengineering network was a “great idea,” but was concerned that the confidentiality classification of information in individual countries would prove a hindrance. Moreover, he said, the world needs more coherent guidelines on exactly what information would be shared.
“We do need to have more international standards about things that might be published,” he said, citing genomes and techniques of bioengineering as two areas of detail that should not be released to the international public. “I don’t think full exchange of every bit of information is the best way to go in the current climate of international feuding and fussing and terrorism.”
Originally published March 6, 2006