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Nanotechnology in Global Medicine and Human Biosecurity: Private Interests, Policy Dilemmas and the Calibration of Public Health Law


This paper links the opportunity to assist the development of a well-reasoned theoretical underpinning for nanotechnology regulation, to a review of the process by which most global health policy develops by default in an institutional environment heavily influenced by private interests. It focuses on two areas of particular significance to global public health: nanotechnology in medicine and human biosecurity.

It would be reasonable to suppose that dilemmas posed to public health and human biosecurity policy by increasing advances in practical applications of nanotechnology should initially be answered by reference to statistical evidence of the global burden of disease, or international agreements about rational threat assessments which then flow into the transparent development of norms that are fair and universally applicable. Yet this rational approach to health law and policy development is not at all characteristic of the field. Globally, medicinal and human biosecurity policy, both in general and in relation to nanotechnology, continue to be strongly influenced by the sophisticated lobbying of private interest groups from a few economically powerful countries. The governments of such nations characteristically express concern that agreeing to binding, universally-applicable international standards in these areas would compromise sovereignty over their own public health and security systems. Their political oligarchies, however, readily acquiesce to corporate funding of regulators, to industry positions on regulatory and policy development committees, to the tacit policy obligations resulting from corporate donations and to a personally lucrative but ethically compromising ‘revolving-door’ employment system between government, the bureaucracy and private sector.

This article proposes to discuss a particular approach to these challenges to norm creation in the context of some concrete examples that show the significance of what is at stake: (1) conflicts of interest in ensuring public safety (2) private exploitation of public-funded research (3) inequities in expenditure of public funds, and (4) diminishing public confidence in government and science.

It argues, with reference to these types of global policy dilemmas, that a better balance of private and public interests in such areas will be achieved in the long term by an international normative standard requiring that the development of relevant public health law and policy be consistent with norms issuing from bioethics and international human rights. It aims to demonstrate some practical policy outcomes from this approach and concludes by weighing arguments against it.

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