CBD: Discussions on Multidisciplinary Assessments of Synthetic Biology Falter

TWN Info Service on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge and Biosafety
31 May 2024
Third World Network


CBD: Discussions on multidisciplinary assessments of synthetic biology falter

London and Nairobi, 31 May (Eva Sirinathsinghji and Lim Li Ching) – Discussions on synthetic biology at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) have hit major roadblocks.

Differences were stark, with some countries, largely consisting of those that have adopted and export living modified organisms (LMOs), trying to pull the plug on the nascent process established by Parties for broad and regular horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment of the most recent technological developments in synthetic biology.

Instead, they forwarded a capacity building and development, technology transfer and knowledge sharing agenda, shifting the balance in the discussions on synthetic biology. With the fate of the horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment process hanging by a thread, there is concern that the necessary safeguards to protect biodiversity and human health will be removed.

The discussions were held at the 26th Meeting of the CBD’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA-26) in Nairobi, Kenya from 13 to 18 May 2024.

As is stands, and given the lack of time, major differences were unable to be resolved, with the text remaining heavily bracketed (indicating disagreements or where text was not discussed).

Thus, much of the discussion will be deferred to the 16th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP-16), which will be held in Cali, Colombia from 21 October to 1 November 2024.

In 2018, Parties agreed in Decision 14/19 that broad and regular horizon scanning, monitoring and assessing of the most recent technological developments is needed, and established such a process in Decision 15/31.

A multidisciplinary Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (mAHTEG) was also established by the same decision, to support the process. It carried out its work in 2023-2024.

The decision included an agreement to start work for doing multidisciplinary assessments of new synthetic biology advancements. The aim was to provide not only biosafety evaluations, but also more complete analyses that can provide valuable assessments to Parties, including on potential socio-economic, ethical and cultural risks.

The CBD Secretariat prepared document CBD/SBSTTA/26/4 for the consideration of SBSTTA which contained, inter alia, (i) outcomes of the assessment (Annex I); (ii) reflections and considerations on capacity-building and development, access to and transfer of technology, and knowledge-sharing around the topic of synthetic biology (Annex II); (iii) a reflection of the process for broad and regular horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment (Annex III); (iv) a description of the refined methodology for broad and regular horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment (Annex IV); and (v) recommendations for each of the five issues that were assessed, and recommendations regarding the process (Annex V).

During the two five-day meetings of the mAHTEG in 2023-2024, the expert members devised both a methodology for horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment (Annex IV) as well as performed assessments of different topics advancing within the synthetic biology field (Annex I).

Seventeen topics and issues were subsequently prioritised for assessment. These included LMOs that are advancing in complexities beyond what has been experienced to date and thus challenging current processes for assessing risks.

Moreover, the complex nature of these technologies, such as their ability to spread, were felt to warrant wider assessments of socio-economic, cultural and ethical implications. These included LMOs containing engineered gene drive, self-spreading vaccines for wildlife and self-limiting insect systems.

Other technologies that were prioritised for assessment but do not fall under the definition of an LMO include the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) with synthetic biology, and inequities in participation of developing countries in the synthetic biology field with regard to research as well as assessment processes.

The mAHTEG was thus also tasked with identifying capacity-building, technology transfer and knowledge-sharing needs in light of the horizon scanning process.

At SBSTTA-26, when Parties took up the agenda item in the plenary session on 13 May, most regional groups expressed strong and broad support for the continuation of the horizon-scanning, monitoring and assessment process, as well as for the outcomes and recommendations that emerged from the mAHTEG.

The African Group further emphasised that while synthetic biology offers promise for innovation, there could be potential implications for biological diversity. They thus called for a precautionary approach that can be underscored by the “critical importance of continuing the process of broad and regular horizon scanning, monitoring, and assessment, ensuring that we remain vigilant in understanding the evolving risks and opportunities associated with synthetic biology vis-à-vis the three objectives of the Convention”.

They also stressed the importance of capacity building, “appropriate” technology transfer, knowledge sharing and cooperation to meaningfully participate in the field of synthetic biology, while also “protecting their biodiversity and mitigating potential risks”.

Belgium similarly welcomed the outcomes of the mAHTEG, including the Annexes on developing a refined methodology for horizon-scanning, monitoring and assessment, as well as the recommendations arising from the assessment. It also expressed support for the continuation of the process for one more intersessional period, as well as the inclusion of a literature review to complement the process of horizon scanning.

(Observers however note that such a literature review may not be sufficient to support a multidisciplinary process due to the limited scope of the previous literature review that was confined only to scientific publications and patent searches.)

Broad support for continuation of the process was also expressed by numerous other Parties, including Austria, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Finland, France, Fuji, Germany, Hungary, Kenya, Lithuania, Mexico, Moldova, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, Peru, South Africa, Switzerland and Togo.

In contrast, Argentina, Brazil, Japan and New Zealand were not as welcoming of the outcomes of the process. Brazil stated that there was not “sufficient expertise” in the mAHTEG, and that they were not convinced of the usefulness of the process considering that three of the topics chosen for detailed assessment would fall within the scope of the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety. In its view, this would be duplicative.

Australia recommended instead that the process could be outsourced to “expert review” in order to reduce the burden of work placed on the Secretariat.

Given the divergence of views, a Contact Group was established. The Contact Group was co-chaired by Ossama AbdelKawy from Egypt, and Jane Stratford from the United Kingdom.

A non-paper, prepared by the Secretariat for discussion in the Contact Group, was intended to deliver a package deal for (A) capacity-building and development, access to and transfer of technology and knowledge-sharing in the context of synthetic biology, and (B) broad and regular horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment of the most recent technological developments in synthetic biology.

Discussions at the Contact Group were fraught from the outset. A developing country regional group repeatedly stated that the horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment process is necessary to avoid reducing countries to mere recipients of technologies with potential environmental, socio-economic, cultural and ethical risks, without the means to assess them in a timely manner.

However, a handful of Parties blocked constructive dialogue from the beginning. Despite the task of the SBSTTA to look at the outcomes of the mAHTEG and review and refine the methodology of the horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment process, those Parties attempted to block discussions on the basis that they did not support continuation of the process.

Instead, those same Parties attempted to refocus the discussion towards the benefits of synthetic biology technologies. They strongly focused on the issue of capacity-building and development, access to and transfer of technology and knowledge-sharing in the context of synthetic biology.

While these issues are key for developing countries particularly, given the barriers they face in this regard, the delicate balance in the text between the two parts was shifted.

Several Parties that support the continuation of the horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment process, called for technology transfer to be in line with in Articles 8(g), 14, 16 and 19 of the Convention, so as to avoid any potential dumping of technologies with environmental, health, socio-economic, ethical or cultural risks. These suggestions were not taken up, however.

[Article 8(g) deals with regulation of risks associated with use and release of LMOs, Article 14 with impact assessment and minimizing adverse impacts, Article 16 with access to and transfer of technology, and Article 19 with handling of biotechnology and distribution of its benefits.]

Instead, the current text now has inclusion of bracketed text that expands the scope of capacity-building and development, access to and transfer of technology and knowledge-sharing to ‘biotechnology’ as a whole. Furthermore, the proposal of a thematic action plan to support these activities remains in brackets, as it was not discussed at the Contact Group, due to lack of time.

Another point of contention was the multidisciplinary nature of the horizon scanning, monitoring and assessment process, which was not supported by the Parties that did not support the assessment outcomes of the mAHTEG. Presumably, this was due to the assessment highlighting numerous urgent environmental, socio-economic, ethical and cultural risks.

This fuelled heated discussions around the inclusion of multidisciplinary experts who raised what some viewed as inconvenient facts within the report. Several Parties thus pushed for a more science-based and Party-driven process, despite the process already being Party-driven and the composition of the mAHTEG being dominated by scientific expertise. References to multidisciplinarity now remain heavily bracketed.

Recommendations from the AHTEG were not taken up into the draft decision text and thus risk being lost from the discussions completely.

The final document will therefore continue to be discussed at COP-16. However, it should be noted that not all of the text was discussed in the Contact Group sessions. Due to the very limited time when the discussion returned to the plenary, the document will be forwarded to COP-16 with many brackets remaining.

As such it can be expected that there will be difficult negotiations ahead on synthetic biology, which may impact on the Convention’s mandate to ensure that new technologies, such as synthetic biology, are adequately anticipated, monitored and assessed. +

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