The threat of biotechnology misuse has implications for the development of science and technology in Africa, argue Chandre Gould and colleagues.
Recent African Union summits have identified science and technology as key future drivers for development, and increased investment is being welcomed by African leaders — particularly in areas such as biotechnology.
But the growth of the biotechnology industry internationally has raised some important concerns about biological safety issues (see Agri-biotech in Africa: Safety first?).
'Biosecurity' policies are therefore being actively pursued in some countries to mitigate the deliberate destructive use of biological agents, knowledge and techniques.
Today, this sense of biosecurity extends beyond conditions in research laboratories to cover the potential dual use — for good and bad — of applications arising from the new knowledge and techniques emerging from research.
It is crucial to assess the security implications of scientific innovations, but this is not a straightforward matter.
One reason is that Western governments, most notably the United States, are deeply concerned with the bioterror threat. Although there have been only a handful of bioterrorism attacks in recent decades, the capability to inflict them is proliferating.
This focus on bioterrorism in international discussions has arguably come at the expense of tightening constraints on the development of state programmes. There is no guarantee that states, particularly those that are isolated and existentially threatened, may not see biological weapons as a valuable item in their arsenal.
The biological defence programme in the United States has shown that the risk of accidental escape of potential biological warfare agents goes up as the number of facilities working with them increases. Indeed, it could be argued that state biodefence programmes should be subject to a great deal more international supervision.
Biosecurity has gained importance in many countries in Europe, North America and elsewhere, and networks, funders and suppliers from these areas are fundamental to the growth of the African biotechnology industry. African research partners and recipients of funds will therefore have to demonstrate their commitment to biosecurity by implementing measures for the secure handling of biological agents.
But policy responses adopted elsewhere are likely to be inappropriate for many situations in Africa, not least because of the difference in the quality of public infrastructure.
In this mix of concerns, one thing is clear: engagement by scientific communities is a prerequisite for a productive response. For Africans to engage effectively in biosecurity debates at a national and international level, it is important to raise awareness about dual use research and biosecurity among African scientists, ethicists, social scientists, policy makers, the media and the public.
That way, Africa can develop its own biosecurity agenda and policies aligned with its own concerns. The cue should not come from Europe or the United States.
With this in mind, we ran seven biosecurity workshops in Kenya and Uganda in May–June 2007. The two countries are emerging biotech nations that are not yet properly engaged in international biosecurity policy deliberations.
The aim was to inform African stakeholders about the general biosecurity debate and the communication, supervision, review and funding of dual use research findings.
Many participants agreed that scientists should initiate a public dialogue about these issues and that such research should be supervised.
Stronger African voice
Although some African states, most notably South Africa, have been active contributors to the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC), a stronger and more coherent African position on regulatory issues is needed.
Not only would this provide an African voice on biosecurity issues, but it would strengthen the negotiating position of those states wishing to place sharing of development, knowledge and technology firmly on the agenda.
A critical mass of African stakeholders who can effectively represent the continent at the BTWC and other international forums must be developed, together with policy responses.
Whether or not African states are threatened by bioterrorism (or state biological weapons programmes) is immaterial: cutting out biotech misuse is in the interests of all Africans and is a responsibility of the African scientific community.
The development of biosecurity mechanisms that neither compromise research nor pose an unbearable financial burden on those responsible for their implementation is crucial.
This strategy would reduce the risk of misuse and mitigate the damage to African scientific development that could result if products, technology or knowledge were to be used for destructive purposes.
Chandré Gould is a research associate at the South Africa-based Centre for Conflict Resolution; Thomas Egwang is chief executive officer of Uganda Media for Health and director general of Med Biotech Laboratories, in Kampala, Uganda; and Brian Rappert is associate professor of science, technology and public affairs at the University of Exeter, United Kingdom.
The authors would like to make clear that the workshops mentioned in the article were funded by a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.