United Nations meeting approves gene drive research

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

December 6, 2018

The United Nations’ Convention on Biodiversity has decided that gene drive technology may proceed in research projects aimed at stopping the spread of diseases and preventing the extinction of endangered species, among other uses.

The science community and African governments hailed the compromise position. Eric Okoree, chief executive of Ghana’s biosafety authority, said the outcome is victory for emerging technologies.

“We are happy that we decided on something that will not strangle emerging technologies like synthetic biology, including gene drives,” he said. “Those restrictions were dissolved. That means there is the freedom and liberty to put regulatory systems in place in Africa and developing countries to regulate them and make a better use of those technologies. So it is good for Africa.”

Delegates from the more than 190 countries that signed on to the convention spent two weeks debating how to regulate various emerging technologies during the 14thmeeting of the Conference of Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 14) and the 9thmeeting of the Conference of Parties to the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety (COPMOP9), which concluded last week in Sharm El-Sheik, Egypt.

A technical group that worked on draft proposals had recommended that nations choose whether to apply the precautionary principle in regard to gene drives or refrain from releasing such organisms into the environment entirely. Thailand, Bolivia and other countries pushed for the ban, but Africa and a number of other Latin American nations insisted that restricting the technology will be bad for their development.

Decisions at this level are made by consensus, so the various countries spent about 10 days trying to come up with a compromise position. The parties eventually agreed “to apply a precautionary approach, in accordance with the objectives of the convention.” They also agreed governments will only consider introducing organisms containing engineered gene drives into the environment after scientifically sound case-by-case risk assessments have been carried out, risk management measures have been put in place and “prior and informed consent” has been sought from potentially affected indigenous peoples and local communities.

The African countries went into negotiations not with individual positions but as a collective. “Our position was inspired by the African Union’s prior agreed position to promote science and technology as the way to develop the continent,” Okoree explained.

“With this decision at the conference, we can build the capacity of African countries to be able to harness these technologies. And when that happens, our scientists and institutions and structures will get ready for such technologies.”

Some of the civil society groups that participated in the conference as observers also claimed victory, insisting the decision amounts to placing restrictions on the technology. “This important decision puts controls on gene drives using simple common sense principles: Don’t mess with someone else’s environment, territories and rights without their consent,” ETC Group said in a statement.

But Okoree disagrees. He said the decision will only amount to a limitation on bad products that emerge from the gene drive technology. “If they say it amounts to restrictions, in some cases, they may be right. Where the technology is not safe for the environment and health, we regulators will say do these changes before we give you a favorable decision. But where it is good, the decision will be favorable. So that is the meaning of case-by-case. It doesn’t mean those who don’t want the technology have won,” he explained.

Pablo Orozco, who led a team from Alliance for Science to the conference, praised the decision as victory for science. “I am glad parties decided against wording that might have encouraged a de facto ban for research on gene drives, and settled on a more balanced wording that responsibly calls for a case-by-case risk assessment approach in line with the convention’s spirit and the implementation of other measures regarding prior and informed consent,” he said.

“The strong support parties voiced for responsibly utilizing new technologies and the statements made on science- and evidence-based understandings during the deliberations on the final decision regarding synthetic biology noticeably affected the discussion around gene drives for the better,” Orozco added.

Gene drive is an emerging technology that can be used to increase the spread of particular genes among a population. Various research projects are under way to apply the technology positively in areas of health, agriculture and environment. For example, the not-for-profit organization Island Conservation is researching how gene drives can be used to reduce the population of invasive species like rodents on islands.  Target Malaria, a United Kingdom-based group, is also researching how to potentially use the gene drive technology to reduce the population of malaria-spreading mosquitoes.

Delphine Thizy, who is in charge of stakeholder relations at Target Malaria, said the decision on gene drives reached at the conference is a good outcome that helps their research. She noted that the agreed-upon language reflects how they are doing their work.

“For us, it is a good outcome. We are happy about the outcome. Making sure a risk assessment is done before release — for the work we are doing, this was already going to be the case. We make sure that countries where we work have a regulatory frame work so they are able to do these assessments. The decision doesn’t change anything in how we are going to progress,” she told Alliance for Science.

“And the other bit about prior consent from indigenous people and local communities — we do that because our project has a very clear commitment to engage all communities that have something to do with our project. So this decision just enforces it,” Thizy added.