Ambassador Markell’s remarks at the Conference “Italy-US: International Cooperation on Emerging Biotechnologies and Life Sciences.”
November 14, 2023
Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs
Thank you so much for hosting and for convening. It’s great to see you. And also, to see Minister Bernini, Minister Urso, Minister Schillaci as well.
All of you have been really wonderful partners to the United States for a long time, and since I’ve gotten here, you’ve been very warm. And we thank you. This conference is really very much a reflection of how important biotechnology is to the future, not just of our two countries, but indeed to the world as a whole. We face so many challenges as a world now, and it is increasingly clear that the solutions to these challenges cannot come from one country alone.
They also cannot come from one sector alone, which is why I am thrilled to see Italian, as well as U.S. investors and entrepreneurs and academics, corporate leaders, as well as trade associations and governmental officials join here today. I understand we even have the first Italian company to be listed on Nasdaq here as well. I also want to say, although they’re not represented specifically, it has become clear to me that one of the most important features that is attractive to U.S. investors in Italy is the quality of the Italian workforce.
And I was recently in Sesto Fiorentino. Minister Tajani mentioned the expansion bid by Eli Lilly there. We have a lot of great US companies in this industry here in Italy, but I attended their announcement of a very big investment, creating an additional hundred jobs. And I said to the employees that day in Tuscany that, you know, all companies, U.S. and others, always have choices about where they’re going to invest.
And one of the most important factors in any choice about where to invest additional resources has to do with the quality of the workforce. So, the Italian workers are really very, very good. As we talk about this topic of biotechnology, I think it is very important, most of the conversation will be on all of the upsides.
But I also do think we have to recognize the potential for some very, very serious downsides as it relates to developments in this industry. And frankly, these downsides are pretty significant. And, you know, if we don’t figure out how to ensure the use of these technologies in a safe way, others are certainly going to exploit them for negative purposes.
For example, genetic engineering and synthetic biology raise ethical questions about how gene editing techniques are used and for what purpose. There is a risk that biotechnology tools and techniques could be misused for harmful purposes, such as the creation of bioweapons. And there are questions about the equitable distribution of benefits and access to new technologies, particularly in developing countries, which is one reason that I believe that Italy’s very keen and energetic focus on Africa is so important. That being said, we do recognize, of course, the enormous upsides of biotechnology and how biotech can better our world. Thanks to many in this room we are seeing the eradication of diseases. Personalized medicines, for example, are being created for patients, which enables not only more accurate diagnoses but more targeted treatments. More and more, we are all going to know people who are benefiting from these developments.
We’re seeing the fantastic use of biotechnology to end pandemics. Biotech led to the development and deployment of the very, very fast COVID vaccine. On food insecurity, new genomic techniques are creating crops with enhanced resistance to pests, to diseases, and to environmental stress that increases crop yields and reduces the need for chemical pesticides, while improving food security.
And this is going to be more and more important as the effects of climate change are felt all over the world, including in Italy and the United States. You’ll be hearing today from Dr. Wegrzyn, as well as Joseph Buccina, on the U.S. approach to biotechnology. So, the question I think I want to focus on for the moment is how can the U.S. and Italy and other like-minded countries who share democratic values and believe in human rights, maximize these upsides while minimizing the downsides?
I think first, like-minded countries have to come together to establish rules of the road so that the technology is developed in ways that reflect our values and interests. These discussions are already happening, and they must continue. They’re happening at the G7, they’re happening at the OECD and elsewhere, and we need to see this continue. At the same time, we have to foster the kind of collaboration and networks that allow businesses, universities, government research institutions, entrepreneurs and others to work together toward a common biotechnology future.
That’s actually, I think, probably amongst the most important things that will come out of today. The people in this room are doing exactly that. We also have a great model for this’ that Minister Bernini and I were talking about recently, which is the Joint Science and Technology Agreement, that allows the researchers from our countries to work together on innovation, on research and development, as well as scientific exchange.
And finally, as mentioned, we’ve really got to focus on minimizing the downsides. There are a lot of risks involved: safety risks, security risks. There are others today who will be here to talk about those. But there are also ethical risks. And this is important in the national context. What’s satisfactory? What is acceptable in a democracy today as it relates to biotechnology?
Should governments be obtaining, saving and analyzing genomic data about their countries’ citizens? Probably not. But there are lots of questions like this that need to be asked. And there’s one of the risks I want to mention, which I think is especially relevant here at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and that’s the geopolitical risk: we have to make sure we’re all doing everything in our power to make sure this technology is not falling into the wrong hands.
One way we can prevent this is through fostering research integrity. The core principles of research integrity are openness, transparency, reciprocity, merit-based competition. It’s more difficult for malign actors to work when there’s a bright light on researchers’ work. So, I want to again thank Minister Tajani for bringing us all together today. I do think, frankly, it is quite remarkable, given the nature of the crises that are facing leaders like Minister Tajani and so many others, that in the face of all those crises, he’s taking the time to bring together this group of people to work together on these long-term issues.
And I think that shows tremendous foresight. So, I thank you all. I wish you the very best for an excellent conversation today and look forward to hearing what comes out of it and to also figuring out how we at the U.S. Embassy can work with all of you, the Italians, the Americans, to bring the promise of this conversation to fruition.
Thank you all so much.