Commentary – Event: Advancing Biosecurity in the Age of COVID

By Stevie Kiesel, Biodefense PhD Student

The response to COVID-19 has exposed a world that is largely unprepared to deal with emerging and novel biothreats, whether the outbreak is natural or intentional. The Global Health Security Network brought together two biosecurity experts to discuss how current projects to improve global health security can adapt during the pandemic and what changes the world needs to make to improve biosafety and biosecurity. Dr. Rebecca Katz moderated while also providing insight from her position as the Director of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University Medical Center, while Dr. Beth Cameron provided her perspective as the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Vice President for Global Biological Policy and Programs. If you missed the livestream on 15 July, you can watch it on YouTube here

As the novel coronavirus emerged and began spreading across the globe, Dr. Cameron was working on a project to strengthen biosecurity and biosafety across five regional centers in Africa, leveraging a strong relationship with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention that helped produce significant improvements in national public health capacity throughout the region. When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and travel was severely restricted, this team was preparing a series of workshops on laboratory biosafety and biosecurity. However, they took this opportunity to revamp the trainings to include information about biosafety in laboratories working with the novel coronavirus and to make them available asynchronously online. Such flexibility is a hallmark of a strong and agile institution, and creating new ways of collaborating and learning reduces barriers to access.

Another example of thinking outside the box to provide timely, useful, easily accessible information to policymakers and the public is COVID Local, a project Drs. Cameron and Katz both work on to produce a decision framework to support leaders trying to safely open their community. This project has so far resulted in both US and international guides full of checklists, metrics, and key objectives to ensure a safe reopening informed by the best available science.

Drs. Cameron and Katz had numerous suggestions for how to improve biosafety and biosecurity efforts, some inspired by lessons learned from COVID-19 and others for which they have advocated for years. Particularly relevant today is the need to support institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). While these institutions should never be above reproach, they should not be abandoned with no plan for addressing the purpose they served. Depoliticizing these institutions, conducting lessons learned reviews, and implementing evidence-based changes will serve the US and the international community much better.

That being said, current institutions leave an important gap that should be addressed. The BWC focuses on deliberate misuse of biological agents, while the WHO is responsible for natural outbreaks. However, no entity in the international system tracks emerging biosecurity risks. Such an entity could add a great deal of value by developing norms and standards for biosecurity research and soliciting buy-in from the private sector, academia, and non-governmental organizations so that these standards represent a wide range of perspectives and are more likely to be adhered to.

A final suggestion was informed by the initial confusion (since dispelled) that the novel coronavirus represented an act of biological warfare. Dr. Cameron suggested that a mechanism must be created to investigate the circumstances of potentially suspicious outbreaks (or as Dr. Cameron calls them, “high consequence events of unknown biological origins”). This mechanism must be depoliticized and led by a coalition of countries so that it does not appear punitive or politically motivated. This concept is similar to the idea of a challenge inspection, found in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). If a CWC member country suspects another member country of non-compliance with the CWC, they can request a challenge inspection, which is undertaken in a short amount of time after the request is submitted. The request must contain evidence for suspicions of non-compliance. Dr. Cameron believes that the concept of a challenge inspection is useful for investigating suspicious outbreaks, but the requirement for evidence of nefarious activity should not apply. Investigations of suspicious outbreaks should not be accusatory but should attempt to fully understand the epidemiological origins of an outbreak so that the appropriate action can be taken. The details of such a mechanism, as well as which entity would have responsibility for the mechanism, need further development.

This hour-long discussion only scratched the surface of the topic of biosecurity and biosafety. And while the webinar attendees were from many countries of the world, more global cooperation is essential to improving biosafety and biosecurity in any meaningful way. To that end, the NTI and the Global Health Security Network are sponsoring the Fourth Annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition. Teams of researchers are encouraged to work with colleagues across the globe to answer the following question: “What are technical and/or political actions global health security community stakeholders should take either nationally or internationally to reduce biosecurity-related risks associated with COVID-19 and future outbreaks/pandemics?” While this webinar certainly had a number of great ideas to answer this question, COVID-19 has exposed a great deal about the current status of biosecurity risks, and there is much to be said on the topic.

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