This is my first post on this forum and I am excited to share the output of my work supported by the Long Term Future Fund. My write-up is titled "China’s Take on Biosecurity: A Report on China’s View, Institutions, Policies, and Technology". It is now published on the Social Science Research Network (SSRN) preprint site, see here.
I would like to thank my mentor (requested to remain anonymous) for being incredibly helpful and encouraging throughout my biosecurity and EA journey. She provided excellent advice in shaping the research direction, writing the structure, and coming up with the content. I would also like to extend my thanks to Jonas Sandbrink for suggesting that I focus my research on understanding the biosecurity landscape in China and for taking the time to review my write-up. Last but not least, I want to express my gratitude to the following individuals for their constructive feedback and suggestions: Brian Tse, Ziya Huang, Myron Krueger, and Ruowei Yang.
Scope and Methodology
My conversations with Jonas Sandbrink helped shape the initial research directions for the project. We had some preliminary understanding that the Chinese community supports international pathogen surveillance and zoonotic risk prediction efforts, but not much beyond that. To further investigate this topic, we wanted to identify key points of contact (the government, researchers, and policy advocates) for biotechnology regulations and biosecurity, particularly governance against the deliberate misuse of biotechnology and biological weapons.
After conducting initial research and discussions with my mentor, we concluded that it was important to tease out the Chinese term for biosecurity and its definition in the first part of the write-up to provide the necessary context to understand how biotechnology and biosecurity are governed. I studied multiple relevant terms, the interpretations provided by various academic researchers, and the context and frequency in which the terms are used in both Chinese and Western literature.
The subsequent sections of the write-up focus on three areas: governance, processes, and technology related to biosecurity within the context of shengwu anquan in China. To comprehensively describe various perspectives on biosecurity, I adopted the common consulting framework of “People, Process, and Technology”. Each aspect of the framework could very well be a standalone research project in and of itself. Nonetheless, I tried to capture as many interesting and relevant observations as possible based on secondary research and analysis of various sources between 2002 and 2022 including peer-reviewed scientific journals, press announcements, government reports, and online searches via Google, Baidu, and China National Knowledge Infrastructure (CNKI).
What follows is a list of questions and excerpts from the write-up that illustrate the current state of development of biosecurity in China.
The Concept of Biosecurity in China
How did the concept of biosecurity come about in China?
World War II biowarfare (inflicted upon Chinese civilians and war prisoners in the 1930s-1940s), the advent of genetic engineering in the 1970s, and infectious disease outbreaks (SARS in 2003) spurred awareness of biosecurity in China and encouraged their participation in international treaties and the development of regulations.
How do the Chinese communities define biosecurity?
Various terms have been used to describe biosafety and biosecurity, including shengwu anquan, shengwu anbao, neibu shengwu anquan, and waibu shengwu anquan. Until today, there remains no consensus on the most accurate term and meaning for biosecurity.
According to the Biosecurity Law of the P.R.C., shengwu anquan is:
“the ability for the country to effectively prevent and respond to the threats of dangerous biological and related factors; biotechnology can develop in a stable and healthy manner; a condition where human lives and health and the ecosystem are relatively free from dangers and threats; the field of biology has the ability to maintain national security and sustainable development."
How do various communities use biosecurity-related terms and in what context?
Shengwu anquan seems to be the go-to term in research publications, official announcements, laws, and regulations. It is often used in the context of safety and security referring to risks associated with biotechnology R&D and applications. In contrast, shengwu anbao is rarely used in government official documents or legislation. Some journal articles use shengwu anbao in the context of safety/security issues related to synthetic biology, genetic technology, laboratory management, infectious disease, and aquaculture.
How much does the Chinese society talk about biosecurity?
I analysed search data from Baidu Index, the Chinese equivalent of Google Trends. Over the years, interest in shengwu anquan has grown, with search volume spiking during events such as COVID-19 lockdowns and the promulgation of the Biosecurity Law in China (although statistical significance has not been established). In addition, CNKI, the Chinese equivalent of Google Scholar, contains over 9,800 research articles that mention shengwu anquan.
Any mention of global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs)?
The concept of GBCR is relatively new in China. There is no CNKI research publication on this topic as of this writing. There is only a limited number of Baidu search results containing the acronym GCBR.
The Current Biosecurity Landscape in China
How is biosecurity governance structured in China? Which government ministries are involved, and what are their roles?
The National Security Commission (NSC) is responsible for national-level decision-making, strategic and policy guidance, and coordination of significant events and activities. While NSC oversees the field on a national level, local administrative divisions and government ministries coordinate and implement biosecurity projects. Each ministry manages a specific scope of work. In particular, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) oversees commercial and non-commercial biotechnology-related activities.
See Exhibit I, Exhibit II, and this Google sheet (a short list of prominent individuals) for more information.
How does China manage international relations regarding biosecurity work?
China positions itself as a leader in biosecurity on the global stage. It aspires to share its wisdom through global standards development (e.g., Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists) and international conventions (e.g., BWC). It also actively supports the publication of local institutions’ biosecurity research outcomes in the Journal of Biosafety and Biosecurity, published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.
What is the policy landscape in China?
Policymakers are progressively developing regulations to formalise governance practices and sanctions. However, these existing legislations generally seem to lack specificity, cohesiveness, and comprehensiveness. Particularly, emerging risks associated with 21st-century biotechnology (e.g., dual-use biological products and technologies, synthetic biology, and the convergence of biotechnology with emerging technologies) have yet to be addressed.
What are the significant biosecurity laws and regulations in China?
For a partial sampling of relevant biosecurity laws and regulations, please refer to the following. For the full collection, please consult this Google Sheet.
- Biosecurity Law - it is the most up-to-date point of view from the Chinese government.
- The Regulations on the Safety Management of Biotechnology Research and Development (draft) - this is considered among the critical pieces developed in conjunction with the promulgation of the Biosecurity Law and is intended to serve as a reference for individuals involved in biotechnology R&D and application.
- Regulations on the Export Control of Dual-Use Biological Products and Related Equipment and Technologies - it describes a list of dual-use items and technologies for export control but could be helpful for biotechnology R&D governance. It shares some resemblance to the Australian Group Common Control List.
How does China respond to incidents and/or law enforcement?
I discussed my interpretations of four incidents and China’s reactions to them and their impact on policymaking. The incidents include H5N1 Hybrid Viruses (2013), NgAgo genome modification research (2016), Academic paper peer review scandal (2017), and CRISPR baby research (2018). The Chinese government and scientific community are more reactive than proactive. For instance, after being beset with integrity (e.g., compromised peer review) and unethical research (e.g., CRISPR babies) controversies, they responded by creating a multi-ministry investigation group, campaigning for research integrity, and developing a data hub and gene editing research regulation.
What is the current state of technological development in China?
There has been a growing interest in biosecurity-related technological advancements in China over the past six to seven years. This is attributed mainly to the “Key Biosafety/Biosecurity Technology Research and Development” Special Project, growth in emerging technologies, and the research enthusiasm of young scientists within and outside China. Some examples of research and development projects include biohazard simulation and risk assessment, infectious disease outbreak early warning systems, and bioterrorism prevention and control technology (see the Google Sheet here).
What are some examples of technology that can help reduce biological risks?
The following is a brief and partial sampling of Chinese progress in these technologies (with reference to the 'Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks'), along with key institutions in brackets:
- Ubiquitous genome sequencing and sensing (BGI Genomics, Qitan Tech, and Wuhan University),
- Microfluidic diagnostics devices (Tsinghua University and MNChip),
- Synthetic biology-based medical countermeasures development (Ad5 COVID-19 vaccine by CanSino Biologics),
- Microarray patches for vaccine administration (China’s National Center of Nanotechnology and Science), and
- Ventilators for infectious disease response.
Below shows a list of potential research questions and insightful commentary from the reviewers.
- What does on-the-ground implementation for biosecurity look like in China? How does it compare to other countries?
“(It) would be helpful to review some responsibilities and see how they were carried out in reality - this provides a foundation for understanding the system challenges and potentially building a more proactive feedback loop.”
- What is the overall landscape for biosecurity technology in China? Which public and private institutions are influential in technology development? What are the intended objectives, functions and features, development and deployment budget and timeline, and stage of development?
“(It) could be valuable to outline all the important private companies and research institutes.”
- Is it possible for the public to offer opinions on Chinese policies? If yes, how can this be done?
"Are there frequent calls for public comments? Can we feed in?"
- How does the scientific community in China perceive having a comprehensive code of conduct, which goes beyond traditional laboratory safety, in light of new risks associated with emerging technologies?
- How do biotechnology companies in China respond to and implement biosecurity-related laws and regulations?
- How do 21st-century biotechnology-related risks (associated with genetic engineering, synthetic biology, gene drives, etc.) develop in tandem with emerging technologies in China?
BONUS! How I got here
I find it fascinating to hear about how people discover EA and get involved in a particular cause area, so I want to provide some context. I was first introduced to the EA concept during my work sabbatical between September and December 2021. The 80,000 Hours problem profile, “Reducing global catastrophic biological risks,” had a significant impact on me because it felt like a huge, yet tangible problem. I was intrigued by the potential for an outsized impact I could have on the world. I began having conversations with a biosecurity and pandemic preparedness expert (requested to remain anonymous) to discuss how I could get a foot in the door. He introduced me to the opportunity to work at the intersection of China and biosecurity and connected me with other individuals. One thing led to another, and I eventually signed up for a research mentorship programme.
I hope this write-up can serve as a reference document to help individuals advance their understanding and facilitate Sino-Western knowledge exchange about biosecurity practices and governance. However, I want to highlight that this report represents an outsider’s view on the topic. I have not consulted or verified the facts with any academics or policy practitioners in China because of two reasons: the risk of misrepresenting our community and my lack of experience in the topic. You may read and share this at your discretion or leave your comments here if you have any questions.
Shengwu [生物] describes living things or biological beings. Anquan [安全] refers to a state of no danger, threat, or accident. Anbao [安保] refers to ensuring anquan. Neibu [内部] means internal and waibu [外部] means external.
The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (P.R.C.), 2020 (in Chinese). See here.
GBCR is translated as '全球灾难性生物风险' in Chinese. A search on Baidu's top results shows a translated version of the report 'Technologies to Address Global Catastrophic Biological Risks' by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.
Wang, X., 2020, p8 (in Chinese). See here.