NTI Convenes Working Group to Identify Pilot Projects for Reducing Biosecurity Risks Associated with Advances in Technology

NTI | bio convened international scientific leaders in London from April 3-5, 2019 to develop concrete, catalytic projects to reduce biological risks associated with advances in technology. The workshop was held to inform and provide recommendations to two working groups within the NTI Biosecurity Innovation and Risk Reduction Initiative that seek to develop an award or seal of approval to incentivize adoption of biosecurity norms and standards for funders, grantees, investors, and publishers to identify and reduce biological risks. Discussions at the meeting also will inform additional NTI-led work to explore insurance incentives for reducing biological risks and financial incentives for biotechnology investors to improve biosecurity.

The gathered leaders included technical experts, as well as publishers, funders, and insurers with expertise spanning the disciplines of microbiology, synthetic biology, biotechnology, and public health. “It’s unique to have this constellation of experts in one room to discuss since they play a critical role in this ecosystem,” said Margaret A. Hamburg, NTI Board member and Foreign Secretary of the U.S. National Academy of Medicine. “Biosecurity innovation and risk reduction is part of responsible stewardship; it is something for which the entire life science research enterprise is responsible."

Ahead of the meeting, NTI | bio circulated a commissioned framing paper proposing global norms for microbiology, synthetic biology, and emerging biotechnologies, as well as a summary chart of potential biosecurity requirements for a seal of approval. “The globally accepted norms for identifying risk and reducing potentially catastrophic outcomes in life science research – especially when that research involves emerging biotechnologies – is very poorly defined,” said NTI | bio Vice President Beth Cameron. “Scientific advances have outpaced governmental oversight, and national policies can’t keep up. The time really is now for the leaders developing, funding, and investing in biotechnology to step up and catalyze innovation in biosecurity.”

Over the course of the meeting participants were asked to identify conditions for a new action, award, or seal of approval that could be pilot tested among institutions and across continents to incentivize adherence to specific biosecurity standards for those using, funding, or investing in biotechnology research and development. The meeting culminated in a series of pitch presentations by participant groups linking together actions from funders, researchers, institutions, publishers, and insurers to reduce biological risks associated with advances in technology. Participants proposed the following action-oriented ideas:

  • Incentivizing biosecurity by design: Today, there are limited incentives for researchers to identify and mitigate or eliminate biosecurity risks associated with emerging technologies. Participants proposed to create opportunities to explore technical solutions to develop safer and more secure biotechnologies. This idea accelerates the realization of promising biotechnologies through complementary research to build in biosecurity and expedite widespread use.  
  • Creating a new mechanism to show funders and publishers how researchers are identifying, managing, and eliminating biological research-related risks: There is a lack of transparency about the presence and process of risk-benefit assessments throughout the research lifecycle. This idea promotes an early and transparent assessment to inform future parts of the research and development lifecycle, including publication.
  • Seal of approval for facilities with excellence in biological risk reduction: Currently, there are no international peer-based standards and incentives for researchers, funders, publishers, and investors to determine which facilities have safe and secure practices in place for reducing biological risks associated with dual-use research. Participants proposed the creation of a seal of approval for institutions with exemplary biosecurity risk reduction structures to incentivize researchers, funders, publishers, and other stakeholders to collaborate with and invest in those institutions with best practices in place. As a first step, the group proposed working with organizations in high-, middle-, and low-income countries, as well as public health and synthetic biology-focused organizations, to launch at least two pilot projects to develop the structure for the seal of approval. 
  • Launching a global hub for dual-use life science education and training: The rapid pace of technological innovation and spread around the globe leaves many researchers unfamiliar with the latest recommendations regarding dual-use life science research and biosecurity. Participants proposed the creation of a new online, open access repository of training and reference material related to dual-use life science.

As a next step, NTI will work with workshop group leaders and participants to further explore these ideas and identify concrete actions to take them forward.

This NTI effort is made possible through generous support from the Open Philanthropy Project.

April 10, 2019

NTI | bio convened international scientific leaders in London from April 3-5, 2019 to develop concrete, catalytic projects to reduce biological risks associated with advances in technology.