A sustained focus and finance are needed to deal with all biological threats

A sustained focus and finance are needed to deal with all biological threats
A person wearing a protective face mask walks in front of the closed gate of a shop painted with the biohazard symbol, in Milan, northern Italy, 16 April 2020, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. EPA-EFE/PAOLO SALMOIRAGO

Just as the world should have been investing more in preparedness long before the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders should learn from this painful experience and invest now in the steps to prevent potentially catastrophic biological events, whatever their origin.

We are witnesses in real-time to the massive disruptions that a naturally occurring disease outbreak can cause across the world in lives lost, health impaired, jobs evaporated and markets crashed. We are experiencing an unprecedented shift in our social fabric on a global scale.

Just as the world should have been investing more in preparedness long before the Covid-19 pandemic, leaders should learn from this painful experience and invest now in the steps to prevent potentially catastrophic biological events whatever their origin – whether naturally occurring, intentional, or accidental. As unprepared as we are for naturally occurring events, we are even more unprepared for an accidental or deliberately caused biological event.

Today, the capacities to prevent accidental and deliberately caused catastrophic events are significantly under-developed. In the inaugural edition of Global Health Security Index, released in 2019, 81% of countries received a low score in biosecurity, the systems to protect especially dangerous pathogens from dangerous actors, and 66% of countries received a low score (33.3% or less), for biosafety, the systems to prevent unintentional exposure or accidental release of dangerous pathogens.  

Additional oversight is needed when it comes to preventing the unintended harmful impacts of what is known as “dual-use research” (research with outcomes that could be misapplied to pose a significant threat to public or environmental health), and 99% of countries have a low score in this area. 

Recognising these vulnerabilities, the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), a technical organisation of the African Union to strengthen public health institutions, is taking action across the continent. 

Africa CDC has launched an initiative to strengthen biosecurity and biosafety systems. Goals of the initiative include developing a consensus list of what is known as high-consequence agents and toxins as part of a bio-risk management legislative framework, as well as launching sub-regional exemplary best-practice projects that advance member state biosecurity and biosafety capacities such as efforts to consolidate dangerous biological agents into a minimum number of safe and secure facilities.

Preparedness is key, but there are also immediate safety and security concerns related to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic that should also be addressed. This can be accomplished through training that encourages laboratory staff to employ safe and secure practices, learning how to adapt these practices to environments that may be experiencing shortages in personal protective gear or have limited access to advanced equipment.

Training should emphasize the importance of secure storage and destruction of infected materials as well as controlled access and a well-maintained inventory. Finally, oversight mechanisms should be encouraged as key to reducing the risk associated with dual-use research.

Africa CDC sets the example other leaders around the world could surely follow by increasing their investments in the development of biosecurity and biosafety capacities. This current crisis shows that we cannot rely on our ability to respond without significant loss to life, economic stability and societal wellbeing.  

The boom and bust cycle when it comes to catastrophic events like epidemics must come to an end. Countries and their leaders tend to respond urgently only when a crisis descends upon the world and lower their guard once it passes. What’s required is sustained focus and finance in upscaling effective preparedness, detection, response and recovery to deal with all biological threats. The world cannot afford for us to snap back into old ways. There is a new normal to develop and entrench, which requires a new leadership. Let’s get on with it. DM

Hayley Severance is a Senior Program Officer and Wilmot James is a Columbia University-based Senior Consultant to NTI, an international security organisation seeking to prevent catastrophic attacks with weapons of mass destruction and disruption. NTI collaborates with Africa CDC and other partners to implement the Initiative to Strengthen Biosecurity and Biosafety which was launched at NTI’s Global Biosecurity Dialogue meeting in 2019 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.


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