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U.N. Official Calls For Stronger International Monitoring of Synthetic Biology
A senior U.N. official this week called for the establishment of an international mechanism for ensuring that advances in biotechnology are not exploited to develop biological weapons, BBC News reported.
While there are international organizations intended to prevent the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons, no similar body exists for monitoring developments in biotechnology that could be put to "nefarious" use, said Piers Millet, deputy head of the Implementation Support Unit for the Biological Weapons Convention in the U.N. Disarmament Affairs Office.
"The traditional approach of the international community to dealing with weapons is this -- they recognize a threat, develop a treaty, and then they turn that treaty into some operational form, normally by trying to control technology associated with it, Millet said during a synthetic biology forum in the United Kingdom. "It has very strong models in nuclear and chemical spheres -- but not in regards to synthetic biology."
He added: "There is quite a big push to enforce this at the international level, to set up some technology-based regime in the biological arena. I personally believe this is doable."
Synthetic biology has been identified as one emerging scientific field that is ripe for exploitation by bad actors interested in creating novel biological weapons.
"If you look at the history of the last century we see a very clear trend -- every time we make a major step forward in our understanding of biology, we find a weapons application for it," Millet said.
Tom Knight, a leading figure in the synthetic biology field, told conference participants there is "a race going on between people who try to do bad things, and the ability to use the technology to counter those threats.
"With the advancement of synthetic biology, it becomes possible to do dangerous things -- but it also becomes possible to respond to those more rapidly, more effectively, with advanced technology," said the Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist.
University of Cambridge zoologist Derek Smith said both the positives and the negatives of synthetic biology should be kept in mind. Benefits can include a greater understanding of the way diseases are likely to evolve, which can lead to more effective medicines, he said.
March 12, 2013
The UNSCR 1540 Resource Collection examines implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all states to implement measures aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring NBC weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery. It details implementation efforts in all of the regions and countries of the world to-date.