Public Event: Panel Discussion
Genetically modified self-spreading viruses represent a new frontier in how we might harness biology and engineering to advance animal and human health. It also represents a frontier being explored by social scientists to understand potential impacts of these technologies on society, and vice versa. In an online panel discussion, I and other social scientists explored the potential for shifts in norms to limit the release of GM viruses into the environment from different perspectives including: security, ethics, responsible research and innovation, public engagement and international law.
The panel discussion on self-spreading vaccines was organized by Science magazine and formed part of the Euroscience Open Forum from 2-6 September 2020. A short article on key security issues of self-spreading vaccines.
Public Event: Panel Discussion
Could we live in a world where vaccines are contagious? Could the military release insects to spread designer viruses to crops? Could your orange juice come from trees genetically modified to protect them from disease?
These were the questions that focused our discussions at a lunchtime event I chaired on 2 August 2019 for BWC Meeting of Expert delegates at the United Nations in Geneva. To support the discussion, the Max Planck Society developed a short animation on Insect Allies, a military program to use insects to spread designer viruses to crops.
The panel consisted of geneticist Guy Reeves (Max Planck Institute for Evoluntionary Biology, Germany), retired Air Vice Marshall Manmohan Bahadur (Centre for Air Power Studies, India), virologist Polly Roy (London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK), plant virologist Tatjana Kleinow (University of Stuttgart, Germany), legal scholar Alex Phelan (Georgetown University, USA), and bioethicist Nick Evans (University of Massachusetts Lowell, USA). The event was funded by the Max Planck Society.
In the evening, we repeated the event at the SDG Solution Space to reach a wider segment of the public.
Public Event: Launch of Policy Brief Series
- Policy Brief 1 A stepping stone approach
- Policy Brief 2 Changes in science and technology since VEREX
- Policy Brief 3 Information-sharing
- Policy Brief 4 Visits
- Policy Brief 5 Consultations and clarifications
- Policy Brief 6 Investigations
- Policy Brief 7 Peaceful cooperation
On 16 August 2018, I launched the policy briefs series Revisiting BWC Verification at a side event to the BWC Meetings of Experts at the United Nations, Geneva. The policy brief series was co-authored with Jez Littlewood and Jamie Revill, and funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The launch was introduced by Hana Cervenka, First Secretary at the Norwegian Mission in Geneva.
Public Event: Film Screening and Panel Discussion
On 8 November 2016, I joined forces with the award-winning producer and director Tim Usborne, the head of the chemical, biological and radiological science division at Dstl, Porton Down, Simon Earwicker, and the UK Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Matt Rowland, to screen the BBC4 documentary Inside Porton Down to BWC Review Conference delegates at the United Nations, Geneva.
The film screening was followed by a panel discussion and Q&A with the audience in which we explored the motivation behind the film and the process of making it, focusing particularly on challenges of balancing national security and transparency. We also discussed the age old conundrum of developing defensive capability through limited weaponisation of biology, and how descisions are made on where the line between permitted and non-permitted actvities lies.
The aim of the screening and discussion was to provide a different, and engaging, way to learn about the history of biological weapons development and current biodefence efforts. The event also provided a more public way to demonstrate transparency of a national biodefence programme than the more formal mechanisms usually employed within the BWC.
Public Event: Launch of Biological Threats in the 21st Century
Biological Threats in the 21st Century was launched with a series of author panel discussions held in Washington DC on 14 October 2016, Geneva on 9 November 2016, and London on 17 November 2016. The series was kicked off with a keynote address by Andrew C. Weber, former Deputy Coordinator for Ebola Response at the US Department of State and former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs.
Workshops on “Building a Global Civil Society Coalition to Strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention”
On 10-11 December 2015 I jointly organised a workshop in Geneva with Chatham House, International Law & Policy Institute (ILPI), and Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). The meeting brought together around 30 participants from a wide variety of civil society organisations, research institutions, international organisations and a selected group of states.
Funded by the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, the workshop was primarily a policy-focused meeting aimed at initiating discussions on (1) the potential for an enhanced role and contribution of civil society organizations to the 2016 Eighth Review Conference and to the BWC more generally, and (2) ways in which civil society actors can collectively organise more effectively to maximise their contributions and advance a shared agenda. Workshop Report
We convened a follow-up workshop on 28 June 2016 in Geneva that brought together a smaller group to discuss concrete preparations for the 2016 BWC Review Conference.
Public Event: “The Threat of Manufactured Disease”
The rapid pace of advances in the life sciences mean they must continually be evaluated and assessed to ensure appropriate oversight is in place. One area of life science research that has gained a great deal of attention recently is ‘gain-of-function’ research, which makes certain viruses more transmissible or deadly. This public event, held on the margins of the Biological Weapons Convention Meeting of States Parties on 1 December 2014 at the Palais des Nations, Geneva, considered the science and risks of gain-of-function research.
Prof Simon Wain-Hobson of the Pasteur Institute and Prof Marc Lipsitch of the Harvard School of Public Health gave presentations on how the international community can: (1) identify the risks of gain-of-function work; and (2) develop appropriate oversight mechanisms.
Biological Weapons Convention member states were encouraged to endorse the 17 October 2014 US moratorium on gain-of-function research and to carry out comprehensive risk assessments to quantify the risks of release of gain-of-function viruses into the community in terms of loss of human life, costs to health care systems, financial and socio-economic costs, and liability costs. States pursuing gain-of-function research have an extra responsibility. They must ensure their national arrangements for gain-of-function oversight take its implications for the Convention fully into account and document their oversight arrangements in the annual CBM returns on Form E. Any gain-of-function work carried out as part of national biodefence R&D should be specifically identified and outlined in CBM Form A. CBM declarations on gain-of-function will signal a commitment to responsible innovation and promote confidence in others that appropriate oversight mechanisms are in place.
An audio podcast is available here:
Workshop on “Confidence & Compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention”
On 3 August 2014 I jointly organised a workshop in Geneva with the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP). The meeting brought together approximately 30 participants including diplomats, national experts, staff from international organisations and academics. Funded by the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office, the workshop was held in advance of the week-long meeting of the 170 states party to the Biological Weapons Convention and focused on three principal issues: (1) the extent to which the BWC is verifiable; (2) whether confidence building measures build confidence, and (3) what a legally-binding mechanism might look like today. Workshop Report Tweets are at #BWCMX
Workshop on “Synthetic Biology & Biosecurity”
I organised this workshop at King’s College London on 28 February 2014 together with my colleagues Catherine Jefferson & Claire Marris. The meeting brought together two dozen synthetic biologists, social scientists, policy experts and science journalists to explore the extent to which concerns about the misuse of synthetic biology for biowarfare or bioterrorism are realistic or exaggerated in the light of current scientific realities. Workshop Report Tweets are at #synbiosec
Workshop series on the BWC Confidence Building Measures
In 2009-2010, I organized a series of three workshops in collaboration with the Geneva Forum and the Governments of Switzerland, Norway and Germany. The first of these was held in Jongny-sur-Vevey on 22-23 August 2009; the second in Geneva on 12 December 2009; and the third in Berlin on 26-27 April 2010. Drawing on diplomats, national experts, staff from international organisations, civil society and academia, these workshops brought together a range of viewpoints on: (1) the objectives of the CBM mechanism and the extent to which these have been achieved in practice; (2) the CBMs in relation to other compliance assessment mechanisms; (3) the format and content of the existing CBM forms, and (4) the effectiveness of the CBM collation and submission process. A report of the workshop series – Preparing for a Comprehensive Review of the CBM Mechanism at the Seventh BWC Review Conference – is available.
Public Event: “Creating the organisms that evolution forgot?” An ‘Any Questions?’ debate on synthetic biology
I was part of the team organizing this panel debate at the London School of Economics on 26 November 2009. The panellists – Dr Phillip Campbell (Nature), Professor Paul Freemont (Imperial College), Professor Richard Kitney (Imperial College), Professor Nikolas Rose (LSE), Hugh Whittall (Nuffield Council on Bioethics) and Dr James Wilsdon (Royal Society) – answered questions put to them by the audience under the experienced guidance of chair Quentin Cooper, presenter of the most listened to science series in the UK, The Material World on BBC Radio 4. Audio and video podcasts of the debate are available.
Launch of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation
I was part of the team organizing the launch of the Centre for Synthetic Biology and Innovation (CSynBI) at Imperial College London on 12 May 2009. A series of keynote lectures were given by Dr Jay Keasling on anti-malarial drugs, Professor Pamela Silver on making biology easier to engineer, and Professor Evelyn Fox Keller on the relationship between synthetic biology and biology. Edited versions of the lectures along with an article by myself reflecting on the UK synthetic debate to date were published in BioSocieties.
Public Event: “Beyond the genome: The challenge of synthetic biology”
I was part of the team organizing this panel debate on 24 October 2007 at the London School of Economics in conjunction with the Royal Society of Arts and Penguin Books. It was an intellectually rigorous and provocative discussion, punctuated by good humour and generosity amongst the panellists: Dr J Craig Venter (J. Craig Venter Institute), Professor Sarah Franklin (LSE), Professor Peter Lipton (Cambridge) and Professor Chris Mason (UCL). An audio podcast of the event is available, and an edited transcript was published in BioSocieties.