U.S. Will Expand Biosecurity Work to Africa, Official Says

(Nov. 23) -U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), shown in 2008, recently led a U.S. delegation to study biosecurity measures at laboratories in several African nations. The United States intends to focus on preventing terrorist acquisition of disease agents from Africa, a Pentagon official said yesterday (Vano Shlamov/Getty Images).
(Nov. 23) -U.S. Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), shown in 2008, recently led a U.S. delegation to study biosecurity measures at laboratories in several African nations. The United States intends to focus on preventing terrorist acquisition of disease agents from Africa, a Pentagon official said yesterday (Vano Shlamov/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative will work to secure deadly pathogens in Africa to prevent their use as tools of bioterrorism, a key Defense Department official said yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 15).

The Nunn-Lugar program has effectively safeguarded biological weapons facilities in the former Soviet Union but deadly disease materials, such as Ebola and anthrax, remain for the most part unprotected at research institutions in East Africa, Andrew Weber, assistant to the Defense secretary on nuclear, chemical and biological programs, said yesterday.

"I've been to a lot of the former bioweapons laboratories in the Soviet Union territory and if you look at the diseases that they weaponized, the pathogen samples originated in Africa," he said during a global health and security conference organized by the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Biosecurity.

"We don't want terrorist groups to do the same thing that the Soviet weapons program did," according to Weber, who earlier this month accompanied Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), one of the CTR program's creators, on a tour of biological research facilities in Kenya, Burundi and Uganda designed to highlight the potential threat.

The region has experienced terrorist attacks in the past from al-Qaeda linked groups such as the Shabab, an Islamic extremist organization that claimed responsibility for recent suicide attacks in Uganda, he said.

"Terrorism in that part of the world is not a hypothetical situation," Weber told the audience.

Lawmakers in 2004 expanded the U.S. threat reduction effort's mandate to include securing weapons of mass destruction and related materials outside the Soviet bloc.

The program is on track to receive roughly $523 million in fiscal year 2011, once the annual spending bills are approved by both houses of Congress and sewn together in conference (see GSN, Sept. 23).

More than $209 million of the proposed funds would go toward biological threat reduction in the former Soviet Union. That works includes safeguarding pathogens, developing laboratories that conduct research on disease countermeasures and some border security operations.

The CTR program has not previously addressed biological risks in Africa, according to Lugar spokesman Mark Helmke. The effort would eventually install new physical security measures and train more medical personnel, he told Global Security Newswire today.

The effort is currently making preparations to begin work on the continent and the "stage is set to move quickly," a Defense Department spokesman said today by e-mail.

Weber said recently the program was likely to provide several million dollars to African states to improve security at laboratories that store dangerous pathogens. He added yesterday that "big thrust and focus" of the initiative's biological engagement work in Africa would be to improve biosafety and biosecurity at research institutions.

Biosafety is often defined as measures intended to prevent the release of infectious agents within a laboratory or the outside environment. Biosecurity involves active methods to avert biological terrorism or other disease breakouts.

During their visit to the Kenya Medical Research Institute, which maintains dangerous pathogens including anthrax and Ebola, in the capital city of Nairobi, the U.S. delegation noticed that several orange bags filled with biohazard waste "were just sort of sitting around" on the ground because the facility's small incinerator had "pretty limited capacity," according to Weber.

"While we were there a stray cat went into one of the bags, had lunch, and then hopped over the wall into the largest slum in Africa," he added. "That's just an example of why we need to focus a little bit more on biosafety."

Weber said that while there has been "tremendous progress" in standing up "administrative" and human health laboratories in the region, veterinary facilities have been largely neglected by the international donor community.

For example, the Uganda Virus Research Institute, which once housed Ebola and Marburg samples, lacked the resources to deal with anthrax outbreaks that killed hundreds of hippopotamuses in recent years.

"They just didn't have the diagnostic tools to deal with that very effectively, so we're trying to help them out" by providing them with modern equipment that could lead to quicker diagnoses, Weber said. "I think that's an important gap that the Nunn-Lugar program can help fill is this lack of attention to the animal health laboratories."

After his speech, the senior DOD official predicted that the threat reduction effort would have a long-term presence in Africa.

"I think it's going to be, just because of the nature of endemic disease, it's going to be absolutely a continuation of the long-term strategic partnership in the region," he told GSN.

The decision to expand the threat reduction program into Africa rather than other regions was based on several priorities, including: the prevalence of endemic disease, the presence of terrorist groups with intent to use biological agents; and the level of existing infrastructure and capacity and the impact the effort could have on improving that, according to Weber.

"Unfortunately, there's terrorism in East Africa, as well as the South Asia region. So yes, we need to work in both; we need to prioritize. A lot of what I described should be a global effort but we can't start everywhere at the same time," he told GSN.

He noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been engaged in the region for decades, with offices in both Kenya and Uganda.

Weber also predicted the Cooperative Threat Reduction biological engagement work would eventually make up half of the program's budget, noting that the disease effort began with $2 million in the late 1990s and has grown to more than $200 million in the pending budget cycle.

November 23, 2010
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction initiative will work to secure deadly pathogens in Africa to prevent their use as tools of bioterrorism, a key Defense Department official said yesterday (see GSN, Nov. 15).