In a first of sorts, the World Health Organization has come out with a global guidance framework for the responsible use of lifesciences.

The framework that comes up against the backdrop of research tools such as gene editing, for instance, aims to mitigate biorisks and govern dual-use research, which has a clear benefit but could be misused to harm humans, other animals, agriculture and the environment.

“Life sciences and technologies offer many opportunities to improve our health, our societies and our environment,” said Soumya Swaminathan, WHO Chief Scientist. “However, developments and advances in life sciences and associated technologies could pose risks caused by accidents during experiments, inadvertent and deliberate misuse,” she pointed out.

The new framework addresses decades-long challenges of preventing the accidental and deliberate misuse of biology and other life sciences, as well as how to manage governance to accelerate and spread innovation, while mitigating negative impacts. Life sciences are increasingly intersecting with other fields, such as chemistry, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, which changes the landscape of risks, and could be missed.

It also outlines the need for anticipatory and responsive governance mechanisms, including foresight approaches, which are participatory and multi-disciplinary ways of exploring trends, emerging changes, systemic impacts and alternative futures.

To help manage risks, it covers issues such as preventing misinformation and disinformation, as well as managing large health data sets. The framework is intended as the go-to starting point for the development and strengthening of biorisk management, which relies on three core pillars: biosafety, laboratory biosecurity and the oversight of dual-use research, said the WHO.