AU drums support for synthetic biology, gene drives

By Nkechi Isaac

November 21, 2018

The African Union (AU) has taken a firm stance in support of synthetic biology and gene drives, insisting Africa must not shy away from the adoption of safe technology to boost its socio-economic development.

The 54 nations that comprise the AU took that strong position at the ongoing United Nations Biodiversity Conference in Egypt, where various proposals are being considered that would restrict access to some of these technologies.

Dr. Rufus Ebegba, the AU representative and Nigeria’s director-general of the National Biosafety Management Agency (NBMA), said the AU is committed to using safe science, technology and innovation to drive development in member states.

Restraining such an emerging trend would amount to frustrating science and technology development in Africa, Ebegba said.

He also reiterated Africa’s commitment to ensuring that synthetic biology is properly regulated while the people tap into its benefits.

Sangwani Harvey Phiri, spokesman of Malawi’s Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining, supported the AU stand.  “Currently, developing countries are facing so many challenges in the field of agriculture, health and technology. Biotechnology seems to be the potential tool that can help in addressing these challenges. So if they [convention delegates] put in clauses like ‘refrain,’ it’s like preventing the advancement of developing countries — especially African countries — in these fields,” Phiri said.

“These measures would invariably affect the whole population,” he added. “Farmers, will be affected as the producers of food, researchers would be affected because there will be no motivation to do further research and the economy will also suffer because much resources would now be deployed to control pests and diseases.”

Ebegba agreed. “The word refrain means you are stopping the clock. Refraining from the use of the technology means there will be no research. But research and science are dynamic process. If we sign such an agreement that means that even our scientists cannot do research in the area of synthetic biology which can be applied in so many aspects.”

The Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA), previously tabled the issue of synbio at its preparatory February 2018 meeting in Montreal, Canada.

Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada had all supported the need to complete the task of evaluating if synthetic biology could be considered a new and emerging issue within the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). But other nations raised concerns and called for the creation of new guidelines of risk assessment specifically for synbio before any applications could be released.

This led the group to defer action on the issues, which are now being re-discussed in Egypt. To facilitate further dialogue, a closed contact group has been formed at the ongoing Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP CBD). The aim of the contact group is to find a common understanding between parties and move forward in productive negotiations.

Speaking during a plenary, Bolivia raised serious concerns about synthetic biology and gene drives, saying it is an issue the nation takes very seriously. While Boliva is engaged in consultations on the issue, and willing to compromise, it still sees a need to exercise caution in the application of a technology that has the capability of adversely affecting both humans and the environment.

Bolivia proposed carrying out more risk assessments and adopting the necessary biosafety measures to minimize possible harm before organisms developed through synthetic biology are released in the environment.

Reacting to this, Ebegba cited a knowledge gap as the bane of the convention, saying the Cartagena Protocol was adopted to protect biodiversity and ensure sustainable, safe use of biological resources. He emphasized that existing biosafety regulations and guidelines already apply in this context.

“The problem we have in this meeting is that most of the representatives of these countries do not have the background information about the Convention on Biological Diversity, which has three objectives that include conservation of biological diversity, sustainable use of biological diversity and equitable sharing of benefit derived from the use of biological resources,” he told the Alliance for Science.

Ebega noted that both the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety and Nagoya Protocol are in line with discussions on synthetic biology, which is “a hybrid of genetic engineering and construction engineering to come out with new products.”

Dr. Oumar Traore, director of Burkina Faso’s National Biosafety Lab, urged the delegates to allow the scientific work to be done.  He noted that synthetic biology would provide Africa with the technology to address malaria and other health ailments, as well as to drive the advancement of other economic sectors of the continent.

“The problem with Africa is that people sit down and do nothing when there’s a problem,” he said. “For example, when there is disease outbreak they just sit and wait until it is out of hand. So, we need to pre-empt such challenges and this is the role of researchers, who should track the disease, embark on research and curtail it before it gets out of hand. This is what we’re asking for: science should be allowed to take its place in solving Africa’s problems.”