By Sachin Chaturvedi, Director General, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS)
This blog is part of a series on tackling COVID-19 in developing countries. Visit the OECD dedicated page to access the OECD’s data, analysis and recommendations on the health, economic, financial and societal impacts of COVID-19 worldwide.
The current COVID-19 crisis has triggered important discussions highlighting the role of science, technology and innovation (STI). It has also revealed a number of gaps and shortcomings in terms of global governance. In this context, it is worth looking more closely at the specific issue of biological threats post-COVID-19, as well as related challenges in terms of governance.
Today, in the race for a coronavirus vaccine, over 300 scientists are working on 120 efforts for vaccine development across globally convened platforms. Fortunately, internationally and at regional and national levels, there is a consensus on the role of science, technology and innovation (STI). Most OECD countries have stepped up international collaboration to face the crisis, through new programmes and by increasing spending on STI. Regarding non-OECD countries, UNCTAD has emphasised the need for more support to international collaboration in this area: “A global pandemic is a textbook example of a critical problem where the sum of isolated efforts by national governments provides much inferior outcomes than international collaboration. The positive externalities of STI investments in such a situation could be huge and decisive in the effort to ensure that the most vulnerable members of the international community are not left behind”. Other international actors like the G7 Ministers for Science and Technology, UNESCO, The World Academy of Sciences, etc. have also repeatedly acknowledged the crucial role of STI in tackling the crisis, calling for increased co-operation.
However, this crisis has also laid bare problems of global governance, raising the question of whether global institutions and agencies are resilient enough to face multiple crises, ranging from weakening legitimacy to financial crunches. To make things worse, accusations against the WHO and the USA’s withdrawal have only added to the sceptical perception of global governance and institutions. In the post-pandemic world, obstacles to collective action in addressing global challenges are likely to be stronger than before.
An area worth highlighting, with experts warning of a potential increase in the use of biological weapons like viruses or bacteria in a post-coronavirus world, is the world’s vulnerability to biological threats. Although there have been positive responses in terms of governance mechanisms to nuclear and space technologies, biosecurity has yet to receive the same attention and biological sciences remain the weakest link in our current institutional architecture. Since the adoption of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1975, adequate institutional and governance mechanisms for security and disarmament are still lacking. And linkages between the Convention and other arms of the UN, like the WHO, have left a lot to be desired.
This year, on the 45th anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the UN Secretary General observed “Scientific advances are reducing technical barriers which earlier limited the potential of biological weapons…I therefore call on States and parties to urgently update the mechanisms within the Convention for reviewing advances in science and technology and to work together to improve biosecurity and bio-preparedness so that all countries are equipped to prevent and respond to the possible use of biological weapons. The Convention’s Ninth Review Conference in 2021 is an opportunity to address these and other issues.”
On 26th March 2020, India called for a strengthening of the institutional architecture for greater effectiveness of the BWC. Moreover, India has consistently raised the issue of STI and disarmament over the last several years, building further on its proposal in 2017 when, along with 18 other countries, it put forward the need to explore challenges related to the use of these technologies for military purposes. The proposal also called for the use of new technologies to restore confidence and to lower the costs of disarmament verification and arms control. Several developing countries backed India. US’ Senator Chris Ford, Assistant Secretary, US State Department Bureau of International Security and Non-proliferation (ISN), tweeted, “We observe the 45th anniversary of the Biological Weapons Convention and reaffirm the importance of BWC Parties’ commitments to preventing biological weapons. The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the importance of BWC Parties’ commitments to reducing all biological risks.”
So how can international co-operation in this area be strengthened?
First, we must create a global and agile biosecurity framework that covers the whole chain of public-health interventions – from scientific research and early warning, to policy formulation, implementation, evaluation and bio disaster resilience. Bioscience expertise and knowledge networks should urgently evolve to support national preparedness for biological warfare. Science, technology and innovation would be crucial components.
Second, at the national level in India, we must create a National Authority on Biosecurity and Biological Emergencies (NABBE) to lead and encourage institutions to work together according to their roles and expertise, rather than competing with each other. The NABBE would need to work closely with other national initiatives for disaster management and agencies like Defence, Home, Finance, Agriculture, etc.
In conclusion, efforts should focus on making technologies work for access, equity and inclusion. The launch of the Technology Facilitation Mechanism (part of Agenda 2030) and that of STI for SDGs at the Osaka G20 Summit, are encouraging steps. Furthermore, world leadership should take on Prime Minister Modi’s call for South Asia to work together as a region in the fight against the COVID-19 crisis. Nationalism is not a solution. Together we need to move forward in creating global public goods that support national medical and other specialised capacities, as well as collective R&D efforts. Several countries have pooled their most senior doctors and scientists to promote expert led crisis management, now increasingly moving beyond just South-South co-operation, to North-South co-operation. To deal with the biological aspects of the pandemic, the need to have a global biosecurity framework in place is urgent.