SBSTTA 26: Robust risk assessment needed for LMOs containing engineered gene drives

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 article by our partner Dr Eva Sirinathsinghji from Third World Network:

Robust risk assessment needed for LMOs containing engineered gene drives

The development of living-modified organisms containing engineered gene drives (EGD-LMOs) has raised significant controversy due to their explicit design intention of spread and persistence within wild populations.

The novelties of EGD-LMOs raise fundamental challenges to (i) the ability to assess risk; (ii) the capacity to mitigate or recall them; (iii) the ability to prevent transboundary movement; (iv) assessment of socio-economic impacts; (v) operationalizing mechanisms of obtaining free, prior and informed consent; and (vi) liability and redress.

In decision 14/19, Parties recognized that specific guidance may be useful for the risk assessment of EGD-LMOs and set out precautionary conditions that should be met before any consideration of environmental release. The AHTEG on Risk Assessment has now developed guidance materials, for discussion at SBSTTA-26.

The guidance identifies major risks and uncertainties of EGD-LMOs, including the potential for gene flow to non-target species, the likely inability to isolate or prevent transboundary movement for some EGD-LMOs, and potential serious risks to human health for public health applications.

However, while the guidance provides a starting point, it lacks methodological guidance on how to address the identified risks and uncertainties. There is an overemphasis on describing a new methodology, but not how it can be applied specifically to EGD-LMOs.

Moreover, concerns were raised over a potential conflict of interest involving a member of the AHTEG, and an associated failure by this individual to disclose the relevant situation in accordance with decision 14/33.

We therefore call on Parties to:

  • Improve the draft guidance materials and define appropriate modalities to do so
  • Ensure the proper application of the procedure for avoiding or managing conflicts of interest, including adopting the amendments set out in CBD/SBI/4/11
  • Ensure a wider assessment of the socioeconomic, cultural, and ethical impacts of EGD-LMOs
  • Reaffirm the precautionary approach and ensure no release of high-risk and unassessed EGD-LMOs.