Bridging Health and Security Sectors to Address High-Consequence Biological Risks

This Atomic Pulse post was written by Michelle Nalabandian, a program officer with NTI | bio, and Cassidy Nelson, a research scholar at the Future of Humanity Institute.

Ebola outbreaks, pandemics, and biological weapons may sometimes seem to be disparate topics within global health security, but they have key factors in common: each could increase the risk of a high-consequence biological event; all require urgent attention by health and security communities to prevent and detect such an event and to rapidly respond; and together, they were the basis for recent global meetings focused on preparing for high-consequence and globally catastrophic biological events of the future.

Health and security experts agree that the risks of a catastrophic biological event are increasing due to factors such as rapid advances in technology, an increasingly interconnected world with persistent health security challenges, ongoing global insecurity and disorder, and a breakdown in global security and scientific norms, including important norms against the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. Despite these shared concerns, urgent biosecurity risks are not being adequately addressed in mainstream health and security fora.

What should health and security communities do?

To raise the level of discourse and support the cross-sectoral dialogue needed to address these challenges, NTI and a number of partners* brought these issues to the mainstream security community during an event on the margins of the 2019 Munich Security Conference and to mainstream global health experts during a side event at the 2019 World Health Assembly.

These events generated critical observations and important recommendations, including through a new report on the Munich event, about key shared priorities among the health and security communities. 

Among them:

  •  Resources and Financing: Global financing for pandemic preparedness and response—in the context of deliberate or catastrophic biological events—is severely lacking. Given this urgent need for resources, developing a solution to identify funds and increase spending should be a shared priority for countries’ health and security sectors and they should work together to address pandemic threats across multiple sectors. Funding must not only be reactive to known public health threats; it must be secured before events occur to ensure institutions have capacity to detect and respond to emerging threats. Importantly, financial resources need flexibility so that response efforts can be tailored to address future biological events. For example, vaccine and diagnostic innovations need platforms that can be readily adapted with rapidly scalable resources. Potential solutions could include linking World Bank Group funding to countries’ demonstrable improvements in core response capabilities or establishing a new funding mechanism in which countries and non-governmental organizations may donate.
  • International Coordination for Deliberate and other High-Consequence Biological Events: Participants at both events readily identified how difficult it can be to manage overarching coordination and response during outbreaks or events that exceed the capacity and capability of the United Nations system (including the World Health Organization) and other international and humanitarian organizations. 

To reduce this major risk, health and security sector leaders should advocate for the United Nations Secretary General to create a permanent position capable of coordinating preparedness and response activities in the event of a deliberate or catastrophic biological event. 

There also is a need for global coordination to ensure that emergency use and scale-up of pharmaceutical and non-pharmaceutical interventions are possible during high-consequence biological events. The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, formed in 2017, serves as an example of effective coordination for vaccine development, but expanded efforts are needed for diagnostics and other essential elements of a public health emergency response.                                   

  • Biological Risks Associated with Rapid Technology Advances: Developments in science and technology are vital to progress for sustainable development yet are also reducing the technical and financial barriers to manufacturing biological agents that could be used to launch a high-consequence biological event. Health and security sectors need to work together to understand the evolving risk landscape as it relates to emerging infectious diseases, new biotechnological progress, and potential bioterrorism threats. The scientific community (including research funders and investors) and the health and security sectors have a responsibility to assess and mitigate risks posed by advanced technology at every stage of the research cycle. Investors and research funders should consider utilizing a portion of their resources to identify and mitigate biological risks associated with new and emerging research and technology development.

It's clear that biological security is not yet a first-tier priority for leaders in international security or global health, and this must change. In 2019 and 2020, there are important opportunities for security and health leaders to demonstrate their commitment to bridging this gap, including: dedicated interventions at the Biological Weapons Convention meetings of experts and states parties that highlight the lack of funding and resources dedicated to investigation and attribution of an alleged use of biological weapons; panel discussions and/or side events at the Global Health Security Agenda ministerial meetings focused on raising awareness about the risks posed by advances in biotechnology; and a dedicated plenary session each year at the Munich Security Conference that specifically focuses on biological threats from a national security perspective.

For more on the risks and possible solutions, read NTI’s new report: A Spreading Plague: Lessons and Recommendations for Responding to a Deliberate Biological Event and Wilton Park Report: Powerful actor, high impact bio-threats.

*Partners include Future of Humanity Institute, Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, and the Center for Global Development

July 3, 2019
Michelle Nalabandian, MFS
Michelle Nalabandian, MFS

Program Officer, Global Biological Policy and Programs

Most Popular