Lessons learned from COVID-19 vaccines could advance synthetic biology. Here's how

Woman wearing mask looking into microscope.
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  • Discussions about intellectual property waivers for COVID-19 vaccines are changing the course of scientific research.
  • The field of synthetic biology could harness this moment to enable a more democratic distribution of tools and technologies.
  • Low and middle income countries can equitably participate in the development and use of these technologies.

Recent debates around how intellectual property rights (IPRs) might be adapted to facilitate wider availability of COVID-19 vaccines constitute a “hinge event” with the potential to alter the mental models and practices in a wide range of science and technologically intensive fields.

The international community has scolded or encouraged wealthy countries to take up their responsibilities and introduce mechanisms for affordable and equitable access to vaccines as public goods. We have seen the return to loud and boisterous activism, most notably the Vaccines for All campaign which has organized protests in London and other cities.

Synthetic Biology (SynBio) is a field combining principles of biology and engineering and shares many features with vaccines. SynBio is used to produce food and enhance nutritional value, create animal feed, medicines, biomaterials and for environmental remediation using algae or bacteria. Like vaccine production, quality requirements for SynBio are high, infrastructure is expensive, technological knowledge is becoming more specialized over time, and there are often long gestational periods and considerable financial risks involved in investment. These limitations lend themselves to terrains where industry actors use intellectual property (IP) regimes to assert and defend rights over technological knowhow.

This traditional approach to securing and protecting IP has the effect of limiting access, adoption and dissemination of technologies, which is why this has become a point of contention in the COVID-19 vaccine global conversation.

Vaccine production is highly concentrated in a few countries around the world especially for those produced using mRNA technologies. The approach taken to increasing global distribution has so far focused largely on persuading vaccine manufacturers to waive IPRs so that their products can be manufactured in other sites.

Those arguing against this option suggest that IPRs are necessary as an incentive for research and discovery that led to the mRNA vaccines. Our intention is not to delve too deeply into the details of the COVID-19 vaccine discussion, as we write more options are being added to the mix.

We are encouraged by the recent announcements of production hubs in Senegal and South Africa for the manufacture of COVID-19 vaccines through public, private and academic partnerships and believe this offers an example for global diffusion of other technologies such as SynBio.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

The World Economic Forum was the first to draw the world’s attention to the Fourth Industrial Revolution, the current period of unprecedented change driven by rapid technological advances. Policies, norms and regulations have not been able to keep up with the pace of innovation, creating a growing need to fill this gap.

The Forum established the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network in 2017 to ensure that new and emerging technologies will help—not harm—humanity in the future. Headquartered in San Francisco, the network launched centres in China, India and Japan in 2018 and is rapidly establishing locally-run Affiliate Centres in many countries around the world.

The global network is working closely with partners from government, business, academia and civil society to co-design and pilot agile frameworks for governing new and emerging technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), autonomous vehicles, blockchain, data policy, digital trade, drones, internet of things (IoT), precision medicine and environmental innovations.

Learn more about the groundbreaking work that the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network is doing to prepare us for the future.

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What does the future hold for synthetic biology?

We will point the way for diffusion of SynBio, currently concentrated in very few countries, using market and non-market mechanisms.

SynBio tools and technologies can spread more effectively around the world by widening the manufacturing base for products and services. Achieving this requires genuine partnerships that pay more than lip service to equity and take seriously the question: “Whose greater good are we prioritizing?”

Achieving this transformation is a tough ask in a field that bears all the hallmarks of elitism and hyper-concentration. The recent marked increase in interest from investment firms – venture capitalists in particular – is likely to accentuate concentration and further limit progress unless we can encourage openness, technological independence, and democratization of emerging technologies.

Another vision of a liberated Synbio is possible, one that prioritizes circular economic systems, data sovereignty and humanitarian development. To achieve this will require shifts in mindset and definitions of success. That’s what we turn to now.

Key outcomes for success

  • Startups and thriving ventures across the world including in the global South (India, Pakistan, Senegal, South Africa, Kenya, Singapore and the Caribbean). These firms will thrive because they have access to investment capital and advisory services equal to their peers.
  • Business landscape with policies, laws, and regulations that encourage and facilitate SynBio by identifying and managing risks.
  • Infrastructure and vertical integration of stacks of technology (equipment, materials codified knowledge, communication networks and tools, computation etc) that facilitate participation and learning. An accessible Global Commons established with rules that prioritize shared governance, changed hierarchies, open access, distribution of power and differentiated experiences based on race, ethnicity, gender, national origin and other dimensions of intersectional oppression.
  • Recognition of data as a resource that can be used to empower historically marginalized communities not yet involved in SynBio.
  • SynBio contributing to the priority human challenges of exceeding planetary boundariesand climate change through development of targeted products and services.
  • SynBio drawing on a wider pool of knowledge and incorporating a more diverse understanding of the underpinning of the technological field.

Disrupting the status quo

Central to achieving these outcomes is the recognition that across the planet, there are cosmologies and epistemologies such as indigenous ways of knowing and place based innovation which are not being fully tapped. Moving beyond the hierarchy that sets out Western knowledge as the prize and other knowledges as less important will be key. We believe that ways of knowing and doing that have been marginalized, silenced, rendered invisible are likely to add considerable value to shaping SynBio and diffusing its valuable outputs around the world. It is these systems of knowing now denoted as “local”, “grassroots” or “indigenous” through coloniality that may in fact have a more nuanced understanding of the possibilities for inter species, man-nature co-evolution and co-existence.

In this reordering, knowledge that is not only profit seeking will be generated and deployed. When technologies are produced according to the rules of an extractive economic system, as we have seen in vaccines and the climate, the results are not only suboptimal but accelerates the destruction of an already very fragile natural ecosystem.

We do not pretend to have all the answers. Our intention is to invite the global community to reimagine SynBio as contributing to solutions that disrupt rather than protect the status quo. We aim to do this by undertaking research, opening up conversations, engaging in dialogue and taking collective action to design better solutions. If we succeed, then beyond the tangible products and services with their associated economic benefits and multiplier effects, we will have cracked the code of elite science, potentially resulting in healthier avenues for place based innovation and an even healthier economic ecosystem and planet.

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