Monday, November 20, 2006

Kofi Annan Meets Mary Shelley

On November 18, 2006, Kofi Annan received the The Max Schmid- heiny Freedom Prize at the University of Saint Gallen, Switzerland. In his acceptance address, Annan focused on the dangers of biotechnology. The dangers he foresees are numerous and serious. Here is an excerpt of his speech:

But if [biotechnology] falls into the wrong hands, [the results] could be catastrophic.

When used negligently, or misused deliberately, biotechnology could inflict the most profound human suffering -- ranging from the accidental release of disease agents into the environment, to intentional disease outbreaks caused by State or non-State actors.

As biological research expands, and technologies become increasingly accessible, this potential for accidental or intentional harm grows exponentially. Soon, tens of thousands of laboratories worldwide will be operating, in a multi-billion dollar industry. Even novices working in small laboratories will be able to carry out gene manipulation. And the more laboratories there are with inadequate biosafety standards, the greater will be the number of mistakes and accidents waiting to happen.

Currently, we lack an international system of safeguards to manage those risks. Scientists may do their best to follow rules for responsible conduct of research. But efforts to harmonize these rules on a global level are outpaced by the galloping advance of science itself, and by changes in the way it is practised.

That is why, in recent months, I have raised the idea of a global forum for debate. Such a forum could discuss how to ensure that biotechnology’s advances are used by all for the public good; how to ensure that the efforts of countries to harness biotechnology are not hampered by unnecessary impediments; and how we can learn to manage the potential risks. The forum would bring together the various stakeholders -- industry, science, public health, Governments, and the public writ large -- to work out a common programme, built from the bottom up.

Some view the dangers posed by biotechnology as relatively minor and manageable. These biotechnophiles are most common in the United States, China, and some others parts of southeast Asia. Here biotechnology flourishes.

Biotechnophobes, especially in continental western Europe, see biotechnology through the prism of Frankenstein's monster. Here biotechnology struggles.

Annan appears to have considerable sympathy for the latter perspective. His call for increased legal control over biotechnological research, international harmonization, and a focus on perceived risks will be influential. Whether or not his proposal is grounded in biological reality is a crucial threshold question, and one that he should address before he embarks on his grand international regulatory scheme for biotechnology. As with the creature in Mary Shelley's literary masterpiece, biotechnology may well be in as dire need of understanding as of control.


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