International Perspectives on Biodefense Strategies

By Nick Bertini

Biodefense is an international undertaking. The successful implementation of biodefense strategies demands cooperation from global partners. This session, moderated by the National Defense University’s Dr. Gerald Epstein, analyzed different perspectives on biodefense issues ranging from policies to practices.

First to present was Sarah Telford from the British Embassy in Washington. Telford presented the United Kingdom’s newly published UK Biological Security Strategy. The document was designed to be a transparent and accessible plan for the public to obtain and understand. Telford highlighted that more than 13 government departments collaborated on the drafting of the document. The main focus of the document aims towards improving coordination and capabilities. One unique item that stood out is the recognition of the use of the internet to acquire materials that could be used to generate a biological threat. The United Kingdom is focused on modernizing their biodefense strategies to tackle future challenges by addressing the rising importance of new technologies and emphasizing fluid cooperation with international partners. Telford finished her presentation by illustrating the need for further cooperation on the global scale in order to keep the UK and its partner nations safe.

Next, the former Commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), David Franz gave a presentation that provided a “One Size Does Not Fit All” mentality when it comes to biodefense strategy. Franz explains that, “we’re all influenced by our own experience,” when it comes to building biodefense policy and investing in initiatives. He highlights this point by pointing out that in 1997 the United States had $137 million set aside for biodefense, but in 2002 (after the 2001 Amerithrax attack) that budget was increased to $6 billion. Touching on U.S. outreach to foreign partners, Franz asserted that domestic policy has influenced out international engagement policy and that—at times—countries perceive threats differently than the United States. In the end, partner nations will do what they think is best and will do what works for them. Franz left the audience with some key observations in relation to international cooperation in the biodefense field: “Focus on the ‘real’ problems to address the potential ones,” “The power of long-term relationships is trust,” and “Communication is key, but listen more than you talk.” As an influential member of the biodefense field, Franz hopes to continue to build these partnerships and sustain long-lasting relationships to strengthen global biodefense capabilities.

The last presenter was Gigi Gronvall, an Associate Professor at John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Gronvall specifically spoke on her experience with India and Southeast Asia in regards to building strong biodefense relationships. She emphasized that diplomatic encounters were needed just as much as technical meetings in order to foster lasting partnerships. Through these diplomatic meetings, officials and leaders in the field can explore different biosecurity perspectives and examine current policy frameworks for mitigating biological threats. Gronvall believes that continued engagement is key to ensuring that these partnerships stay resilient and productive. One key takeaway from Gronvall’s presentation is that smaller multilateral meetings seem to be more transparent and productive than larger multilateral meetings. In other words, the more countries that are involved in a meeting, the less likely nations are going to share with one another. Gronvall spearheaded the coordination of a multilateral meeting involving Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the United States, and the Philippines that proved to foster many bilateral relationships after the conclusion of the meeting. Ending on a high note, Gigi Gronvall highlighted the success of the Global Health Security Agenda and its Joint External Evaluation Process in raising the profile of many public health issues.

I found this session particularly interesting because of the diversity of the panel. The panel broadened my idea of what biodefense strategy was and could be. The session underscored the importance of cooperation and global engagement to keep our world safe from public health threats. I commend the panel on all of the work they are continuing to accomplish and wish them the best in all of their future endeavors to make our world a better place.

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