On 17–18 January 2023, SIPRI hosted an expert workshop as part of its work on developing a toolkit for practicing responsible biological science, targeting academics and researchers in the life sciences. This work, undertaken with the support from the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, targets dual-use technological developments that have implications for the proliferation, development and use of biological weapons.
There has been significant interest in technology-related risks in recent years. In 2019 SIPRI produced a report entitled ‘Bio Plus X’ on the convergence of biotechnology and emerging technologies, and the implications for biosecurity risks.
Much has changed in the short period since 2019. The speed of vaccine development in response to the Covid-19 pandemic—indicating the exponential pace of technological advancement—suggests implications for biosecurity. Not all of those implications are understood or even determined yet. This is especially relevant given the build-up of dual-use capacities, including equipment and materials that can contribute to the development of dangerous and offensive biological agents. The legitimate use of equipment and materials in a wide range of scientific research and industrial activity underscores the urgent need to understand the risks and to engage a range of stakeholders, including non-state, to address them.
Dr Mirko Himmel, Associate Senior Researcher within the SIPRI Armament and Disarmament research area and principal scientist working in the Department for Microbiology and Biotechnology at the University of Hamburg, presented the in-progress toolkit framework to a group of over 25 internationally renowned experts in the field at the workshop. In addition, participants considered internal briefs from subject-matter experts on the fields of genome editing, vaccine development, nanotechnology and digital technologies, aiming to better understand these technologies including in terms of their positive externalities and potential biosecurity implications. Discussions explored more effective ways to integrate tech-specific risk considerations into the toolkit as well as means to design resources for risk assessment and awareness linked specifically to emerging technologies.
The workshop was conducted under the Chatham House Rule.