DNA for Peace

Can fighting poverty, hunger and improving health in the developing world lessen the threat of bioterrorism?

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In January, I offered my thoughts about a piece of U.S. legislation—the Biodefense and Pandemic Vaccine and Drug Development Act of 2005—that involved the concerted and secure coordination of biotechnology resources to prepare for large-scale biothreats. In the commentary, I expressed concern about the secretive manner in which they proposed to facilitate bioresearch in the name of biosecurity. The question is raised: Should the results of biological research be disseminated on a "need-to-know" basis and who should dictate this need? Based on a new report, I am not alone in my concerns.
In late February, the Canadian Program on Genomics and Global Health (CPGGH) released a report entitled DNA for Peace: Reconciling Biodevelopment and Biosecurity, which raises questions and offers suggestions about the best way to ensure future global security. Fundamentally, the report, which was based largely on the results of a November-2005 workshop at the New York Academy of Sciences, calls for the development of a network of scientists to promote biotechnology research globally in the belief that fighting poverty and hunger and improving health in the developing world will offset the desire or need to develop biothreats.
"The need to foster bioscience for development and the pursuit of biosecurity are in a delicate balance," says Dr. Peter Singer, director of the University of Toronto Joint Centre for Bioethics and co-author of the study. "Our report says: Lead with biodevelopment, and biosecurity will follow. Lead with biosecurity, and we may end up with neither."
Thus, rather than simply trying to clamp down on misuse of biological technologies and resources, the CPGGH promotes the idea of working with scientists and governments in the developing world to promote research that benefits these societies. As a side benefit, they believe the strategy will also promote vigilance against the misuse of biological science from within rather than externally.
"Though it may sound counter-intuitive, the most promising way to ensure the peaceful use of modern biotechnology is first to build international biotechnology science capacity, which always goes with the development of regulatory regimes, professional codes of conduct and often with international collaborations," adds Dr. Abdallah Daar, director of ethics and policy at Toronto's McLaughlin Centre for Molecular Medicine, member of the African Union's High-Level Biotechnology Panel, and study co-author.
I would have to agree. In my experience, it is only when people have a sense of ownership and participation that they truly feel a responsibility to the common welfare. When individuals lose any sense of control over their own destiny, they lose their sense of self and make rash and far-reaching decisions.
A child dealing with poverty, in the West or in the developing world, is more likely to pick up a gun when promised a better life. When conflicts arise internationally over economic, cultural or philosophical differences, countries are more likely to take biotechnology in the wrong direction. Luckily, some people are already making moves in the right direction.
In this issue of Drug Discovery News, you will read about an international effort called the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), which has a mandate: "To improve the quality of life and the health of people suffering from neglected diseases by using an alternative model to develop drugs for these diseases and ensuring equitable access to new and field-relevant health tools" (see page 24). In March, the United Kingdom's Department of International Development provided the DNDi with a 9.5-million Euros to continue its efforts into diseases such as malaria, Chagas disease and trypanosomiasis.
You will also likely have read about the Institute for OneWorld Health, a nonprofit pharmaceutical company that reinvigorates flagging drug discovery and development efforts in the hope of improving and saving lives in the developing world. And even companies in the profit-seeking world are participating in the global effort, as exemplified by the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases, which aims to discover novel treatments and make them available without profit to poor patients in disease-endemic regions.
For the sake of global peace and welfare, it is imperative that we support initiatives like these or get involved in the process ourselves. As Singer says: "Bioterrorists require darkness to succeed. The global network approach we advocate will shine as much light as possible on this science to increase its use to fight disease and hunger and reduce the risk of it being used with malevolent intent."
Amen to that.
(For more on DNA for Peace, visit their Web site here.)

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