Global Alert and Response (GAR)

Life Science Research and Development (R&D) and Global Health Security

The issue

Life science research and biotechnology, including genetic engineering, synthetic biology, genomics and proteomics have led to remarkable improvements in health. Developments in the field of drugs, vaccines and diagnostics have resulted in significant advances in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. These advances, however, also present new challenges in the field of bioethics and of equitable access to life sciences research and have been the subject of several recent studies. The project on "Life Science Research and Development (R&D) and Global Health Security" examines the parallel implications for global health security.

Results published recently from a number of life science research experiments have drawn considerable attention due to their unexpected findings, indicating unforeseen consequences and raising concerns about the accidental or possible misuse of this knowledge. Subsequently, several measures have been suggested to manage problematic issues surrounding life science research (including self-governance, codes of conduct, legislation and regulation). If not properly managed, these measures may impede the conduct of life science research, laboratory practices and activities, and public health activities in general. A fine balance must therefore be struck between furthering the public health benefits of life science research and development and mitigating its potential risks—a balance that facilitates the development and emergence of new techniques and knowledge while providing all actors involved in life science research guidance on how to manage the associated risks. A working paper mapping the different issues was published in 2005 and provides useful background information.

The project

The project Life Science Research and Development (R&D) and Global Health Security" aims to raise awareness among WHO Member States about the potential implications of life science R&D for global health security. It underlines the importance of carrying out life science R&D for improving the health of all people as well as the potential risks associated with life science R&D.

The project informs Member States on the possible options for risk management to address dual use life science research from both informative and ethical perspectives. It also emphasizes the need for a public health approach in addressing such issues. Through regional activities, the project will raise awareness, inform and provide technical support material. It is envisaged that a guidance document or an evaluative report will be produced at the end of the project. This project has been developed as part of the implementation of the World Health Assembly resolution WHA55.16 of 18 May 2002.

This project is being implemented by the department of Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response (EPR) in close collaboration with the following WHO departments: Research policy and cooperation (RPC) ; Special Programme for Research and Training in Tropical Diseases (TDR) ; and Ethics, trade, human right and health law (ETH) . This project is also being implemented in collaboration with WHO regional offices.

Scientific working group report

As part of this project, a scientific working group met in Geneva to discuss the risk and opportunities of life science research for global health security. The report of the scientific working group meeting is available for consultation.

The scientific working group recognized that these issues are complex and challenging for public health, and paid special attention to the needs and vulnerabilities of developing countries. It underlined the need for the global community to respond to these challenges in a manner that is sustained and comprehensive. Five priority areas were identified for which action is needed:

1. Education and training for life science students and researchers, and ultimately even for high school students, journalists and the public;
2. Preparedness for a possible major outbreak of disease resulting from the intentional or inadvertent misuse of biological agents by preparing for natural disease events;
3. Development of risk assessment methods;
4. Engagement of all stakeholders in the life science community, and development with and through them of guidelines for oversight; and,
5. On-going capacity building at country level, including ethics, clinical practice, laboratories and research.

Consultation on the scientific working group report

Your feedback on the project "Life Science Research and Development (R&D) and Global Health Security" and on the meeting report of the scientific working group report is critical to ensure that the widest perspective on these issues has been sought and taken into account. We would welcome your views via an online consultation, which will be opened on the 12 June, 2007 and will run for 3 months. In particular, we are keen to receive your feedback on the project and on the five priority areas detailed in the scientific working group report.

The online consultation will be open for 3 months, from the 12 June 2007 to the 12 September 2007. The feedback form is available below with the scientific working group report.

We thank you in advance for your time and contribution.

Access to the report and feedback form