Exploring the Ways of Biotechnology to Enable Global Resilience
Interview with Matt McKnight, General Manager, Biosecurity at Ginkgo Bioworks
As a leading platform in biosecurity and public health solutions, Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks is joining inaugural World Resilience Summit 2023 as a Summit Partner on 24 May in Geneva. The summit is being held in collaboration with Geneva Health Forum alongside the 76th World Health Assembly, and is aimed to contribute to the global pandemic accord on prevention, preparedness and response.
In this interview, Matt McKnight, General Manager of Biosecurity at Ginkgo Bioworks introduces the company’s work in bioengineering and discusses how it can help increase resilience to future pandemics.
– Could you describe Ginkgo Bioworks' work in the field of resilience and how it relates to the goals of World Resilience Summit?
One of the goals of our company is to help transition to a biobased economy, boosting global resilience in myriad ways by offering the promise of sustainable alternatives to carbon-intensive industrial processes. Ginkgo’s mission is to make biology easier to engineer, through a cell programming platform that empowers major industries — from pharmaceuticals and agriculture to materials — to make this transition. A twin pillar of Ginkgo’s approach to this goal is to build resilient global infrastructure to prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats. We like thinking of this as a sort of “global immune system” that can not only safeguard human and environmental health, but also help secure the benefits of the burgeoning bioeconomy. That vision is only achievable through renewed commitments and approaches to multilateral and multisectoral collaboration, which is why we are so excited to be involved with World Resilience Summit.
– What do you hope to achieve by participating in the summit, and what specific outcomes are you looking to bring back to your organisation?
We are really interested in exploring all of the ways in which biotechnology can enable global resilience. We are a platform company, and we are aiming to empower a broad slate of industries and institutions to use biological technologies to achieve their goals. The summit is assembling an incredible group of stakeholders looking to build resilience across the One Health spectrum, and my hope is that we will come away with new ideas on how biotechnology can help boost resilience and new thought partners on this pathway — we are thrilled to collaborate with others who share our vision.
– How can the private sector, in general, contribute to the implementation of the pandemic accord?
I see two major roles for the private sector here: building the technologies for the global immune system, and operationalising them at scale. Some of our greatest tools in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic — vaccines and testing — provide illustrative examples. Building upon years of publicly-funded research, the private sector was able to develop new COVID-19 countermeasures incredibly quickly. Now is the time for the public and private sectors to capitalise on what we have learned about the value of collaboration to respond to a pandemic, and build systems to prevent the next one.
Ensuring that this technological innovation can be deployed rapidly, at scale and with equitable benefits to all poses an even greater challenge, and I think the private sector can and should play a critical role. At Ginkgo, we saw very early on that lack of equitable access to testing was disproportionately impacting vulnerable communities in the US, and we built a flexible, cost-effective pathogen monitoring offering to provide these communities, as well as public health leaders, with data to support decision making across over 5,500 sites. Now, as the pandemic is shifting into another phase globally, our focus is on global capacity building for preparedness and response. And we are working closely with national governments and multilateral and regional organisations like the Africa CDC to make it happen.
– What lessons have you learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and how has it impacted Ginkgo Bioworks' approach to resilience?
There are so many lessons I could point to, but one that really sticks out to me is understanding the COVID-19 pandemic not just as a biological phenomenon, but as a social and political one. Ginkgo’s a biotechnology company, and biotechnology was absolutely critical to the response effort. However, so much of our work over the past three years was in learning how to build trusted relationships with community members who were grappling with acute uncertainty.
“The pandemic has shown us very clearly how important it is that there be close collaboration and coordination between the public and private sectors, as well as non-governmental and donor agencies. This is critical to prevent the next pandemic, and we need to act now.”
As we all know, it is critical that an emergency is not the first time that groups are meeting — all the relevant actors need to be meeting and developing plans for prevention and response now.
In the US and globally, the risks posed by the virus were amplified many times over by breakdowns in trust: citizens’ trust in institutions and official sources of information, and trust between countries. The implication is that we cannot really address resilience to biological risks without thinking about resilience to misinformation, disinformation, and geopolitical risks. So, we increasingly think about resilience in terms of creating trusted sources of truth about the biological world. That means building technological infrastructure for sample collection and analysis and building the broader coalitions, policies, and systems needed to organise, share, and use biological data. Ginkgo supports efforts to move this forward.
– How do you envision the role of biotechnology in pandemic prevention, and what are some of the most promising areas of innovation in this field?
Monitoring infrastructure can really help create environmental baselines for biological data so that we can quickly spot anomalies and track trends in spillover risk. This sort of persistent and pervasive data collection will also allow us to rapidly detect and contain spillover events when they do appear. We can prevent those initial sparks from catching fire. I am excited about the potential for metagenomic analysis of complex environmental samples — not just from wastewater, but also from soil, water, and air — and innovative techniques for sample collection that are more field-deployable and automated and can access valuable insights in new ways, such as through xenosurveillance, in which mosquitoes are used as distributed sensor networks for infectious diseases. It is also important that as we develop these innovative methodologies, we also work with stakeholders to develop the most appropriate and effective responses to the data we obtain and use technology with care.
– As a leading innovator in biotechnology, how do you see Ginkgo Bioworks contributing to a more sustainable and resilient future, both in terms of the products and services you offer and a broader impact on society?
I think we have barely scratched the surface of the potential of biology to transform our economy and our society. Much like computing has been the defining technology of the past several decades, biology will be the defining technology of this century. It’s exciting because there are so many possibilities. In my mind, one of the most consequential things we can do right now to boost resilience is to figure out how to unleash the potential biology holds to completely reinvent the way humans make, build, create, and manufacture.
“We can make the world more sustainable, more equitable, and more accessible, and we can do this through collaboration with global thought leaders to help move a vision for resilience forward.”
About Concentric by Ginkgo Bioworks
Ginkgo Bioworks is the leading horizontal platform for cell programming, providing flexible, end-to-end services that solve challenges for organisations across diverse markets, from food and agriculture to pharmaceuticals to industrial and speciality chemicals. Ginkgo's biosecurity and public health unit, Concentric by Ginkgo, is building global infrastructure for biosecurity to empower governments, communities, and public health leaders to prevent, detect and respond to a wide variety of biological threats.
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About the Author
Matt leads Biosecurity at Ginkgo Bioworks, seeking to apply the tools of modern biotechnology at scale to counter harmful biology in all its forms and origins. Prior to building the Biosecurity business, Matt spent 4 years as Ginkgo’s Chief Commercial Officer and 7 years as an investor at IndUS Growth Partners where he was also the President and COO of Decision Resources Group. Matt has worked supporting business development at Palantir Technologies and is an active venture investor. Early in his career, he served as an officer in the United States Marine Corps. Matt completed a degree in History at Dartmouth College and is a graduate of the joint degree program at the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, where he was a Zuckerman Fellow.