SBSTTA 26: Ensuring good governance of synthetic biology

As participants in the 26th Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical, and Technological Advice (SBSTTA 26) of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), we will be sharing insights through articles authored by members of the CBD-Alliance’s Working Group on Synthetic Biology, to which we belong.

Key topics of discussion at the Nairobi conference include synthetic biology and the risk assessment of gene drives. For more detailed information on the issues at play, we invite you to consult the briefings (short/long) we have developed in preparation for this conference.

Please find below an introductory article from the Working Group on Synthetic Biology:

Ensuring good governance of synthetic biology

At the Conference of Parties (COP) 15 of the Convention of Biodiversity, Parties established, in Decision 15/31, a “broad and regular” process of multidisciplinary horizon scanning, assessment and monitoring of new developments in Synthetic Biology. The need for this process was already identified by Parties in Decision 14/19, and provides a means for governments to collaboratively track and provide timely responses to biodiversity threats and opportunities emerging from modern biotechnology developments.

In the past two years, the multidisciplinary Ad Hoc Technical Expert Group (mATHEG) on Synthetic Biology undertook extensive work to design, review and test a working methodology for the broad and regular process. This was reported as Annex IV of CBD/ SBSTTA/26/4. It involves an expert-driven process with multiple steps of information gathering, synthesis, screening, selection, filtration, and analysis.

The mAHTEG identified 5 priority topics for assessment: self-spreading vaccines for wildlife, self- limiting insect systems, development of engineered gene drives to control vector-borne diseases and invasive species, integration of artificial Intelligence and machine learning, and inequity in the participation of developing countries in the context of synthetic biology.

The group undertook a first round of multidisciplinary horizon scanning, monitoring, and assessment for these 5 topics, reported their findings, and articulated proposals for further policy work.

They identified key areas of developments for policy attention, and issued a set of recommendations to the SBSTTA. Read the CBDA Working group on synthetic biology brief on this topic here-

Drawing on the work of the mAHTEG, we believe the Parties at SBSTTA 26 should:

  1. Agree the methodology of the broad and regular process, as outlined and road-tested by the mAHTEG, and confirm that the process should occur at least each biennium (ie; between every COP).
  2. Re-emphasize the importance of multidisciplinarity and precaution to the functioning of the broad and regular process.
  3. Initiate timely policy formulation processes on priority topics identified by the mAHTEG, including 1. The Integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) with synthetic biology and 2. Self- spreading vaccines for wildlife.
  4. Request that assessment guidelines on gene drives also incorporate socioeconomic, cultural, and ethical impacts.
  5. Address other topics raised by the mAHTEG: including issues of North-South equity, self- limiting insects, technology facilitation, and capacity-building for horizon scanning, assessment and monitoring activities.
  6. Ensure no release of high risk and unassessed synthetic biology organisms, components, or products takes place.