Purnima Kochikar says Vancouver science writer Wendy Skinner said ‘frankly, you have some explaining to do’
“Frankly, you have some explaining to do”, was the response a Toronto woman had to Sun columnist Wendy Skinner’s accusation that she was using the scientific name for COVID-19, a UN treaty on the ethics of synthetic biology, to praise Canada’s two-year old regulatory framework.
Purnima Kochikar, vice-chair of the Toronto Public Health System Alliance and the list of relatives for the poisonings took aim at Skinner on Monday. She writes a column on public health for the Sun. On Monday, she used this column to take Skinner to task for her criticism of Canada’s two-year old regulatory framework.
Skinner had called Canada’s framework “massively flawed”. In response, Kochikar responded on Twitter saying: “Canada’s framework on synthetic biology is far from the best globally, there is room for improvement, and it is not about to take the place of international trade protocols nor UN-sanctioned treaties on bio-physical science.
“We have just rolled out the first-ever regulatory framework of its kind. With this framework, we have ensured the safety and ethical future of synthetic biology, and that’s pretty valuable!”
Skinner’s disagreement wasn’t about Canada’s regulatory framework per se. Rather, she took issue with Kochikar’s praise of this framework, writing: “Surely she must be aware that it only requires regulatory jurisdictions to give ‘unclear’ signs of approval for people, governments, and institutions to apply synthetic biology to health and human development?
“One would be better off reading the consent criteria for human experimentation on humans and the pre-submission consent criteria for foreign governments, universities, and research centres to continue these activities in the future.”
Skinner then challenged Kochikar to a “debate on ethical rules and legal regulation around the whole of research involving synthetic biology and growing experiments for the human race.”
This request is something that many bioethicists have said Canadians should be involved in – including Cambridge ethics expert Nicholas Vardy, who advocates for transparent, transparent regulation.
A comment on the post from Nic Stephenson took Skinner to task for her choices of words, and appeared to shut the debate down.
“One must wonder where our Bill Gates, Dr Muntadsir Rashid were in 2003 when Alan Mayton was attacked and locked in his office and then was fired by the university, after he refused to withdraw from research involving synthetic biology? And where is Vivek Singh today? How about Adam Ereli?
“Meanwhile the Canadian health minister announces that $9m in funding has been released to support research by 12 universities related to synthetic biology – she didn’t say anything about ‘positive impacts’? What language is that? It’s too late for Tristan Leary, he died before hearing about the announcement. Does she think he’d have liked it if she’d ‘yelled’ more?”
Kochikar responded saying the comment read more like an accusation than an open discussion. The conversation was made more technical in response to Stephenson’s “guess her favourite genes” comment.
On Tuesday, Kochikar further defended her choice of words in a Facebook post.
“Dr Charles Vaclavik has studied the UN treaty called COVID-19 for 15 years, and he said yes. It is a great treaty. I was using his facts and discussing the role that Canada’s international public health treaty, Synthetic Biology Regulations (SBR) plays in terms of the future of science.
“He was a guest at the symposium I attended on 10 November 2017 in Toronto (although the subject of his talk was not co-opted for the Lexicon Project) and I was referring to him, for some reasons I do not know, in the context of his words.”