Convention on Biological Diversity talks go virtual

Posted 15th July 2021 by Dr. Samantha O’Loughlin and Dr. Abdoulaye Diabaté

Throughout most of May and June we followed an online meeting that will have important consequences for the natural world, yet is largely overlooked by the general public and even the scientific community: the meeting of the Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD).

As an advisory body, SBSTTA makes recommendations to the CBD’s Conference of Parties (COP) where final decisions are made on global policies for biodiversity conservation. Similar to the better-known UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the CBD lays out a comprehensive framework of actions for conserving global biodiversity and has been adopted by over 190 countries or ‘Parties’.

Many of these countries have also signed up to supplementary ‘Protocols’ that include regulation and risk assessment of genetically modified organisms. This is where the particular relevance of the Convention to Target Malaria becomes clear: research, development and use of gene drive mosquitoes will be covered by any decision made about genetically modified organisms.

Even more significantly, gene drive has been the topic of a lot of discussion at the last few CBD meetings, with concerns being raised by some countries that current regulations are not adequate or sufficient to manage gene drive organisms. During SBSTTA and the preceding negotiations, recommendations were made to specifically address these concerns; these include plans for the development of ‘voluntary additional guidance materials’ for the risk assessment of organisms containing engineered gene drives. The exact text which will govern how the new materials are formulated and the scope that they will cover is still being negotiated and will be finalised at the COP taking place later this year.

As researchers, we are new to the world of international policy negotiations; it is very different from the scientific meetings we are used to. The debates are very structured, with a lot of official ‘process’ that has to be observed. Discussions can be long and confusing, often revolving around single sentences or even single words. At first it can be difficult to follow, but once you get used to the rhythm and language of the debates, it can be quite exciting.

Negotiations usually take place in large rooms with hundreds of delegates present from around the world. For obvious reasons, this meeting was the first to be held online. Although this was accepted as necessary to advance the negotiations that have already been delayed by over a year, this online format presented new challenges, such as those linked to scheduling and connectivity. The virtual configuration meant that most sessions were in the middle of the night for delegates in Asia and the Pacific, and that some participants experienced connectivity issues.

CBD negotiations are carried out by nominated delegates from each country, and other interested stakeholders can register to attend the meeting as observers. At Target Malaria, we are world leaders in gene drive research and our collective expertise can contribute usefully to discussions around gene drive. As observers, we had the opportunity to present statements and interact with other participants.

In parallel to SBSTTA, an affiliated meeting also took place, namely of the Subsidiary Body on Implementation (SBI). This body will decide how the CBD will be implemented. Because the first countries to potentially benefit from gene drive approaches to vector control are likely to be in Africa, it is essential that African biosafety agencies have the knowledge base and resources to assess the pros and cons of this technology. To highlight this, Dr. Diabaté presented a statement at one of the meeting’s plenaries drawing attention to the need for capacity building in Africa and the importance of technical cooperation and scientific research for implementation of the CBD and its protocols.

Although these meetings may sound very distant from our everyday lives as researchers, their outcomes can have important implications for regulations, risk assessments and even allocation of funding. As progress in the fight against malaria continues to stall, with the number of cases worldwide remaining virtually unchanged in the past 4 years, it is important that we create a supportive environment for research and innovation to address current challenges.