By Winniecynthia Awuor
The world health organization (WHO) has launched a global guidance framework for the responsible use of life science. This framework calls for leaders and stakeholders to mitigate bio-risks and safely govern dual-use research, which has a clear benefit but can be misused to harm humans, other animals, agriculture, and the environment.
This is the first global, technical, and normative framework for informing the development of national frameworks and approaches for mitigating bio-risks and governing dual-use research.
The framework aims to safely unravel the great promise for new and improved ways to improve global health offered by life sciences and related technologies and addresses the decades-long challenges of preventing the accidental and deliberate misuse of biology and other life sciences.
The life sciences are increasingly crossing over with other fields, such as chemistry, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology, which changes the landscape of risks, with those that span multiple sectors and disciplines more likely to be missed.
“Life sciences and technologies offer many opportunities to improve our health, our societies, and our environment,” said Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist.
“However, developments and advances in life sciences and associated technologies could pose risks caused by accidents during experiments, inadvertent and deliberate misuse.”
Additionally, the framework addresses how to manage governance and oversight to both accelerate and spread innovation, while mitigating negative impacts.
Looking at how to manage the increasing pace of advances in the life sciences, the Framework outlines the need for anticipatory and responsive governance mechanisms, including foresight approaches, which are participatory and multi-disciplinary ways of exploring trends, emerging changes, systemic impacts, and alternative futures.
To help manage risks, it covers issues such as preventing misinformation and disinformation, as well as managing large health data sets by increasing awareness and capacities for bio-risk management, navigating the particular challenges around the research on infectious diseases, and preventing the misuse of research and technologies through collaboration among different actors and sectors.
The framework is intended to be the go-to starting point for the development and strengthening of bio-risk management, which relies on three core pillars: biosafety, laboratory biosecurity, and the oversight of dual-use research.
Accounting for different contexts, resources, and priorities, the Framework is designed to be adapted by the Member States and other stakeholders, depending on their needs and perspectives.
In addition, Ministries of health are called upon to work with other ministries, including science and technology, education, agriculture, environment, and defense, along with other key stakeholders, to assess the risks posed by life sciences locally and nationally, and identify appropriate risk mitigation measures to strengthen governance for bio-risks and dual-use research.
According to the WHO guidance, life sciences include all sciences that deal with living organisms, including humans, nonhuman animals, plants and agriculture, and the environment, or products of living organisms or that incorporate components derived directly or synthetically from living organisms.
The WHO activities to support the Framework’s worldwide implementation include: Leveraging existing efforts and initiatives, including those on laboratory biosafety, biosecurity, and ethics;
Maintaining different stakeholders and local champions to monitor and evaluate the measures developed and implemented at local, national, regional, and global levels.
While the governance of bio-risks cannot be under the sole responsibility of one international body, WHO, through its leadership, aims to harness the developments of the life sciences to improve global health while anticipating and mitigating risks posed by such developments.
The Implementation of the Framework will be done at the country and local levels, with efforts supported by WHO regional offices and other partners.