Benefits and risks


An earlier report on public and expert opinion on MycoSynVac and synthetic biology in general (Deliverable 8.2) found that one of the central concerns of the public is about the fair distribution of risks and benefits across all stakeholders in the development of synthetic vaccines, including industry, farmers, animals, and consumers. The report showed that there are two related elements to this worry. First, there is a perception that the development of a MycoSynVac product will only benefit the industry and farmers, simply increasing their profitability. Secondly, there is a concern that animals and consumers are being put at risk by the project without sharing in the benefits. So, while many concerns need to be addressed to establish whether MycoSynVac really will involve an unfair distribution of risks and benefits, the first question that should be considered is:

1. How are the potential benefits of this technology distributed across the stakeholders? i.e. industry, farmers, animals, consumers?

In general, we have found that MycoSynVac could benefit farmers, industry, consumers and animals and that the potential benefits are not confined to increased profitability. There are especially large welfare gains to be made for the animals that currently contract the diseases MycoSynVac is designed to treat. M. Bovis, for example, is a painful condition in animals, and current practice in many places is to cull animals that contract it. Thus, by introducing a vaccine for M. Bovis there is a large potential for welfare gain, as animals with it will not suffer from the effects of the disease or need to be culled.

Since animal welfare is an important concern for many consumers, any welfare gains for the animals also represent a secondary benefit for consumers. If the general level of animal welfare in the production chain can be increased by the use of vaccines, the consumer stands to gain by their interest in animal welfare being satisfied to a greater extent. Further, any potential efficiency gains in the production chain are also likely to benefit consumers in terms of price. This means that the fact that profits could rise for industry and farmers does not represent an ethical problem since this improved profitability will not have been achieved by putting an unethical additional burden on other stakeholders. Rather, in the long run improved efficiency will translate into lower consumer prices.

Given that MycoSynVac has the potential to benefit all stakeholders, we believe that the most pressing questions relate to the likelihood of the benefits being realized, and how they compare with the risks that both humans and animals will potentially be subjected to. The distribution of the potential gains for all stakeholders in the MycoSynVac project can be controlled to an extent, and it is ethically imperative that this distribution is fair, as has been highlighted in both the earlier literature review (deliverable 8.1) and policy documents (The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, 2010). Hence the next two sections will be present a more focused discussion of the questions about risks to animals and humans that MycoSynVac raises.



The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. (2010). New Directions: Th­e Ethics of Synthetic Biology and Emerging Technologies. Washington DC: The Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.