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Building a biotech alliance of democracies

Jun 08,2023 - Last updated at Jun 08,2023

By Jafer Ahmad and Abigail Kukura

WASHINGTON, DC — Like electricity and artificial intelligence, biotechnology is poised to drive a general-purpose leap in human history. Offering the ability to manipulate the very essence of life as we know it, biotechnology represents a multi-trillion-dollar sector that straddles industries as diverse as agriculture, health, materials, and energy.

From pathogen risks and the security of biodata to the ability to bioengineer solutions to our most intractable challenges, the coming era presents both considerable perils and immense opportunities to transform our world at both the molecular and global levels. And the new era is beginning at a time of heightened competition between democratic and authoritarian countries that apply different norms and values to biotechnology.

Fortunately, the United States and its allies and partners have a head start. According to Pitchbook, the US remains the world’s leading originator and destination of biotech investments, with US-based firms raising $466 billion in 2022, roughly ten times the amount of Chinese-origin capital. Close to 90 per cent of that US capital goes toward domestic investment, highlighting America’s role as both a global innovation hub and a marketplace for leading-edge biotech.

As of 2022, this has resulted in the US being home to the world’s largest number of biotech companies, nearly three times more than in China. The US government has also begun to set the strategic course for durable biotechnology leadership with the Executive Order on the Bioeconomy and the creation of the National Security Commission on Emerging Biotechnology and the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H).

Meanwhile, Europe is a world leader in biotech patents. The continent secured more than 40,000 health-related biotech patents over the past five years, and outperforms the US on biotech patents related to food, macromolecular chemistry, and environmental technology. French DNAScript and United Kingdom-based Nuclera are leaders in producing “desktop” DNA synthesisers. And the UK and Canada have established meaningful national biotechnology strategies dating back to 2017.

But China is determined to lead the world in biotechnology by 2035. The People’s Republic is investing heavily to address impending domestic demographic and health-care challenges and even weaponise biotech innovations for military advantage. While total Chinese biotech investment is far below the US level, it now has the second-highest number of biotech companies listed in the Forbes Global 2000. Furthermore, China may now be the lead producer of research in synthetic biology and biological manufacturing.

The implications for US national-security interests are far-reaching, because collaboration and links between the countries’ life-science ecosystems mean that US advances could also accelerate China’s biotech development. For example, the rise of BGI Group (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute, now the world’s largest genetic-research organization), was partly enabled by its access to US intellectual property and markets.

In the context of international competition, enduring leadership in this general-purpose technology cannot be left to chance. It requires sustained focus by the government, greater public-private collaboration, and a willingness to make strategic bets on our biotech future.

To this end, the Special Competitive Studies Project (SCSP) has published a National Action Plan for US Leadership in Biotechnology, a policy roadmap with top-line recommendations and supporting detail for coordinated academic, private-sector, and government efforts to establish US leadership in the sector through 2030, alongside allies and partners.

Given the biotech sector’s unique nature, it is worth focusing on where the US and its allies and partners can coordinate efforts. As biotechnology’s building blocks are inherently local and distributed, it is more diffuse, accessible, and interconnected than other technologies, offering distinct benefits and risks in the context of global tech competition. The US and its allies and partners should capitalize on these distinct benefits to work together more closely in facing a determined competitor like China.

First, because biology knows no borders, bioresponse capabilities must be both local and global. By creating a globally accessible information-sharing portal, a “Bionet”, to enable early-warning systems, the US and its allies and partners could enable rapid localised responses to biotech-related incidents. The data streams provided by a Bionet could support and feed into countries’ rapid-response systems for biosecurity (“Medshield(s)”), enabling capabilities such as a biothreat “radar”, and swift deployment of vaccines and therapeutics.

Second, setting standards is crucial to gaining and sustaining leadership in any technological sector. The US and its allies and partners should work to shape industry and ethical standards towards democratic principles, respect for individual rights, and promotion of a fair economic playing field. They should also deprive strategic rivals of the opportunity to shape biotech standards in their interests. This requires coordinated and consistent engagement with the International Standards Organisation, the OECD, and other relevant multilateral organisations to develop and advance common positions.

Third, the US and its allies and partners should turn disparate genomic-data ecosystems into a strategic resource greater than the sum of its parts. They should consolidate open and proprietary datasets on human, animal, and plant genomes in a central biobank that is well-curated, interoperable, easy for researchers to access and use, and maintains strong privacy protections for human genetic data. This biobank could democratise biotech innovation, facilitate AI-enabled analysis, and reduce reliance on entities like BGI Group.

Fourth, the US and its allies and partners must improve their ability to attract and retain global biotech talent, including from China. They should update and leverage relevant employment-based, research, and investor visas to give priority to applicants with expertise in biotech, as well as supporting reciprocal biotech research fellowships.

Fifth, the US and its allies and partners should create a democratic biomanufacturing alliance to enable “design anywhere, grow everywhere” network effects, secure democracies’ supply chains, and enhance geopolitical soft power. Here, the US should develop data-sharing agreements within existing and future alliance structures to enable shared access to an interface for local biomanufacturing capabilities.

Last but far from least, a baseline for global biotechnology cooperation must be established. Advances in biotech require cooperation and collaboration, sometimes even among competitors. The US government should identify and openly signal to the US private sector and to its allies and partners whether and where opportunities for cooperation on advancing global public goods may be worth the associated risks to democratic values.

Harnessing the power of biotechnology requires the US and its allies and partners to work together to craft a shared vision that puts democratic values front and center, especially in an era of international competition with authoritarian countries. The SCSP biotech plan is a starting point from which to do just that.

 

Jafer Ahmad is director of Future Technology Platforms at the Special Competitive Studies Project. Abigail Kukura is associate director of Future Technology Platforms at the Special Competitive Studies Project. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023. www.project-syndicate.org

 

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