Atomic Pulse

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
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
on the margins of the 2019 Munich Security Conference
and to mainstream
global health experts during a
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.
    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
  • 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
, 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

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
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

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