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Responsibilities of actors in the life sciences to prevent hostile use


 The ICRC’s message to actors in the life sciences can be summarized as follows:  


©CDC/James Gathany 

  • Be aware of the risks, rules and responsibilities as outlined in the ICRC appeal.

  • Take action in your own domain to minimize the risk.

  • Be aware of the work and interests of others and work with them.


 With more power comes more responsibility  


The ICRC’s appeal ‘Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity’ calls on governments, scientists and those who employ scientists to meet their individual and collective responsibilities to ensure that advances in the life sciences are used only to benefit humanity. All stakeholders in biotechnology should work together to prevent the h ostile use of the life sciences through greater awareness and preventive action.

The ICRC is working with States to build political momentum and public awareness in order to prevent poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease in the context of legal rules such as the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.

However, legal measures only constitute one aspect of prevention. There are a range of extra-legal preventive measures within the domain of responsibilities of scientists and those who employ them. All possible legal measures and extra-legal measures together make up what the ICRC refers to as the ‘ web of prevention’ .

 The Web of Prevention . . .  


The web of prevention is expressly designed to foster synergy of action among all people in a position to limit risk of poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease. The idea is that if individual actors in the life sciences are properly informed of the risk, rules and their responsibilities, they will make better decisions.

Steps to minimize the risks of poisoning and the deliberate spread of disease resulting from advances in the life sciences can only be truly effective if they result from'joined-up'thinking across all responsible sectors, namely government, the scientific community and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries.

Such engagement requires three main stages of action:

  • (1) to acknowledge that minimizing risks from the hostile use of advances in the life sciences is of concern to them and part of their responsibility;

  • (2) to identify and implement the necessary actions within their own sphere of influence that will contribute to risk reduction and that complement being taken in other spheres; and

  • (3) to ensure that their actions are known amongst and complement the actions of actors in other relevant sectors.

Individual preventive actions, while sometimes not appearing likely to be effective on their own, can add up to very important in combination with others. They do not have to be complex, expensive or onerous, and should reflect the particular circumstances of a situation. The benchmark is that they should be effective.

 . . . Like fire prevention  


One analogy relevant to understanding a web of prevention in the life sciences is that of fire prevention. The use of fire is essential to many aspects of our everyday lives, whether we are conscious of it or not. But at the same time fire is potentially dangerous if used improperly, for example for arson.

Fire trucks and fire-fighting personnel arriving to extinguish a fire are dramatic and highly visible elements of society's efforts to minimize the risk and harmful effects of fire. But most of the time a combination of mundane and largely un-noticed measures, such as smoke detectors, building construction codes, properly marked fire exits, safety evacuation drills, extinguishers and sprinkler systems reduce fire risk effectively.

Most fire prevention measures are not dramatic, and rarely interfere with our daily business. But they are there. A properly designed building will be planned with a view to fire safety, and throughout the life of that building there need to be fire evacuation drills, checks of its fire extinguishers, detectors and sprinkler systems. The building should be inspe cted from time to time to ensure the fire exits are not blocked, and obvious fire hazards are not present.

No one suggests that fire should be banned. But there is virtually universal awareness of the risks and of the need for practical action to minimize fire being used improperly. This often prevents fire breaking out, and may minimize its effects even when this occurs. So it should be with the use of biotechnology in the context of the web of prevention.

 Practical measures  


©CDC/James Gathany 


Some examples of the types of practical action the ICRC proposes to actors in the life science through the'Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity'appeal include:

  • Scrutinizing all research with potentially dangerous consequences and ensuring it is submitted to rigorous and independent peer review.

  • Adoption of professional and industrial codes of conduct aimed at preventing the abuse of biological agents.

  • Ensuring effective regulation of research programmes, facilities and biological agents that may lend themselves to misuse, and supervising individuals with access to sensitive technologies.

  • Supporting enhanced national and international programmes to prevent and respond to the spread of infectious disease.

  • Ensuring that awareness of risks, rules and responsibilities to prevent poison and the deliberate spread of disease are part of laboratory or o ther training for all personnel.

This is only an indicative selection, and there are many other practical measures that could be applied with suitable effect, depending upon the situation. However, whether a politician, soldier, policymaker, scientist, doctor, biotech executive, parent or student, you have a stake in preventing the misuse of the life sciences for hostile purposes.