UNODA co-hosts with the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists a launch event for new report on “A Framework for Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research” by the Independent Task Force on Research with Pandemic Risks 

March 14th, 2024

On 28 February, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) hosted a launch event at the United Nations Headquarters for a new report by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists’ Independent Task Force on Research with Pandemic Risks, entitled “A Framework For Tomorrow’s Pathogen Research.”

Ms Rachel Bronson (Bulletin President and CEO) opened the event, emphasizing that this new report attempts to provide guidance to policymakers at all levels to address biosafety and biosecurity needs. Mr Chris King (Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Branch at UNODA) noted that the report reflects four key priorities from UNODA’s perspective: (1) it raises awareness about the global nature of pandemic risks; (2) it stresses the need to ensure that the benefits of peaceful use are maximized, while the risks of misuse are minimized, and preferably, eliminated; (3) it highlights the need for responsible innovation and research; and (4) it emphasizes the need for agreed, intergovernmental multilateral strategies to meet global challenges.

Helping to set the scene for the report, Ms Anna Laura Ross (Head of Emerging Technologies, Research Prioritization, and Support Unit at the World Health Organization) provided a presentation on how WHO is implementing activities to mitigate biorisks and govern dual-use research. Mr Tim Stearns (Dean and Vice President of Education at The Rockefeller University and Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Cellular Dynamics) provided a viewpoint from academia, highlighting that the tools that enable extremely beneficial discoveries also create potential risks, and with advances in technology, those tools are becoming more accessible to non-scientists, thus potentially compounding the related risks.

Representatives from the Independent Task Force on Research with Pandemic Risks introduced the findings and recommendations of the new report. Ms Filippa Lentzos (Associate Professor, Science and International Security, King’s College London) provided an overview of the report’s remit and recommendations, which include, inter alia, to include a broader range of stakeholders in risk-benefit considerations; to identify alternative, safer research that could reach the same public health ends; to distribute benefits of such research more equitably; to develop effective legislation, regulation, policies and guidelines specifically regulating such research at local, national, and international levels; to consider resource availability and public health priorities for local contexts; to harness informal governance measures for norm-setting standards until formal ones can be adopted; and to fund empirical studies to improve research with pandemic risks.

Mr David Relman (Professor and Senior Fellow, Center for International Security and Cooperation) also spoke to what might be addressed in following discussions, including how to identify representatives for such diverse and different stakeholders, how to harmonize risk evaluation in different cultures, and how to create a tiered oversight system that could identify the small sub-section of work that needs more oversight.

Mr Ravindra Gupta (Professor of Clinical Microbiology, Cambridge Institute for Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Diseases) highlighted that one of the key recommendations in the report is that despite the global nature of the risk, biosafety has different nuances in different places and therefore needs to be addressed with local solutions and local stakeholders.

Mr Shahid Jameel (Sultan Qaboos bin Said Fellow, Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies) spoke to the task force’s discussions about trust, noting that in the current environment with increasing mis- and dis-information, it is even more important to gain public trust through responsible science.

The event concluded with a Q&A session, in which participants engaged with the task force representatives in more detail on the report, in particular the task force’s consensus-based approach for developing its recommendations and some of the challenges that the task force might predict in implementing the recommendations put forth in the report.

The full report is now available online, and the recording of the event is also available on UN WebTV.