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Diverse Voices in International Security: NTI’s Gabby Essix on Promoting Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Biosecurity Field

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NTI is committed to highlighting and supporting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the peace and security field. During February, Black History Month, NTI Deputy Vice President for Communications Rachel Staley Grant sat down with NTI | bio Program Officer Gabrielle (Gabby) Essix to discuss DEI efforts in the biosecurity field. Essix supports NTI’s efforts to increase global action on biological and health security through the Global Biosecurity Dialogue and the Global Health Security Index and she leads NTI’s annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition. Since 2017, this competition has fostered professional development for rising global leaders in the field of biosecurity and biosafety, and it promotes DEI within the global health security community.

You joined NTI in 2021. Tell us about your background. How did you become an expert in the biosecurity field and what brought you to NTI?

I went to American University for my undergraduate degree. I was a public health and pre-med major. I worked for a short time at a doctor’s office after graduating and realized that individualized medicine wasn’t the route for me. I wanted to work in public health to help people on a community level. I have always been interest in the nexus between infectious diseases, international affairs, and global development, so I decided to attend graduate school at Georgetown University where I earned an M.S. in Biohazardous Threat Agents and Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Wow, that’s a fascinating degree.

Yes, it’s a quite a mouthful. It was a great program that delved into the intersection of health and biodefense and covered how society approaches biosecurity and biosafety. I learned a lot. In fact, I don’t think I had heard of biosecurity until that point. We had amazing guest lecturers—including Beth Cameron who was vice president for NTI | bio at the time. That’s how I learned about NTI, and I knew I wanted to work here one day after hearing about all of NTI | bio’s great projects.

You now lead our annual Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition. What has the competition done to help foster diversity, equity, and inclusion in the field?  

We’re preparing for the 7th Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition this year. When NTI launched the competition in 2017, it saw major gaps in gender and geographic diversity in the bio- and health-security fields. There was also a need to build more expertise among younger generations and across various sectors and countries to develop innovative solutions to better prepare, prevent, detect, and respond to disease outbreaks.

The biosecurity field also has traditionally been dominated at leadership levels by older men from the global north. We are working to build gender parity, and involve those with more diverse educational and professional backgrounds, including those early in their careers. We also want to have greater representation from the countries in the global south.

To enter the competition, students and early career professionals must form a team, and that team must be made up of members from at least two different nations. We’ve had applicants from all around the world, including Azerbaijan, Uganda, the Philippines, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, Singapore – just to name a few. The great thing about this competition is that NTI doesn’t just name winners; we provide opportunities for winners and runners-up to engage in major global health or biosecurity events to share their work and ideas and to illustrate the importance of engaging with a diverse group of young people in this field.  The 2022 winners, for example, presented their winning paper at the Global Health Security conference in Singapore and Regional Preparatory Meetings for the Ninth Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference in Geneva.

Our winners have gone on to do some very impressive things. A past winner from Uganda, for example, is now a Technical Advisor in the Ugandan Ministry of Health Public Health Emergency Operations Centre where he helped support efforts on the latest Ebola crisis. Other competition winners have gone on to work at think tanks or at funding entities, working on reducing global catastrophic biological risks.

My goal for this year is to approach different sectors with our competition—hard sciences, social sciences, policy professionals. COVID-19 taught us that pandemics affect all facets of life—so everyone has a role to play, but we need to make more people aware of biosecurity and how they can enter the field and help make it better. We are going to do some outreach to U.S. and international universities as a starting point.

You also support NTI | bio projects that spur action and change on biological and global health security globally—the Global Health Security Index, specifically. The big takeaway from the 2021 GHS Index was that no country is ready for the next pandemic, but even more explicitly, the 2021 Index found that countries are continuing to neglect the preparedness needs of vulnerable populations. Could you tell us more about the inequitable response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to invest in making public health systems and response efforts more equitable in the future?

It’s true, as you say—our most recent GHS Index found that no country is ready for the next pandemic—but the first edition of the GHS Index was released in October 2019, and it found that no country was prepared for pandemic threats at a time when we hadn’t yet faced COVID-19. A few months after that first index came out, we saw that lack of preparedness play out on the world stage to devastating effects, and we specifically saw that countries too often neglect the needs of vulnerable populations.

Could you define vulnerable?

In the context of global health security, I think it’s a government’s responsibility to determine who is the most vulnerable in their population—whether based on health status, age, socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, or gender.  The point is that governments need to make sure resources are available to their most at-risk populations. This ranges from equitable distribution of vaccines to providing translators for public health communication, and everything in between. Governments need to ensure that the inequity gap does not increase between those who do and do not suffer more. Unfortunately, on a global stage, we are seeing the gap widen between countries that have more access to resources, such as diagnostic testing and medical countermeasures, and those that don’t.

What needs to change?

The World Health Organization convened an emergency session in December 2021 and launched an Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) to address inequitable pandemic response. A major problem during COVID-19 pandemic was the equitable distribution of vaccines and other resources. The INB is working to address how countries can more efficiently prevent and detect, and more equitably respond to major disease outbreaks through the Pandemic Accord. The Pandemic Accord won’t be voted on until the 2024 World Health Assembly. NTI is part of the Global Health Council, an organization of civil society groups that are working to engage with governments and the WHO in the INB process.

Are there any prominent individuals or organizations in the field that are making headway to create the change you are calling for?

Precious Matsoso, a former Director-General of the South African National Department of Health, is currently co-chairing the INB process, and she has always been a major proponent of equitable representation. She is making sure that countries and civil society are being heard in the process to establish the Pandemic Accord. NTI has engaged with Ms. Matsoso through our work in the Global Biosecurity Dialogue project and the Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition.

I also want to highlight Loyce Pace, now the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services. Ms. Pace was previously the executive director of the Global Health Council, and she has always been passionate about equity and community engagement. It was great that the Biden Administration brought in someone who is invested in those areas.

At the organizational level, Women of Color Advancing Peace and Security (WCAPS) has a global health and security division where they bring together women from across the world to foster more diverse views and ideas. The UN Office of Disarmament Affairs also runs a Youth for Biosecurity Initiative which is a cohort of 20-25 young professionals from the global south who get to learn more about the global biosecurity architecture and the UN system. Like NTI’s Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition, it gives these young professionals an opportunity to be in front of global leaders in the biosecurity field.

I also want to note the DEI work that the International Federation of Biosafety Associations is leading. They published results from a 2021 survey on diversity, equity and inclusion in biosafety and biosecurity, and now they are working to form DEI indicators and building out a methodology process to measure these. I was selected to be part of this ongoing study, and I’m excited to help inform this project.

It’s great that there are experts and organizations committed to this work. Do you feel optimistic that progress can be made in this area?

Yes, we have seen that in the face of tragedy, people recognize that marginalized communities have been hit the hardest and that sustainable, systematic change is needed. Organizations, governments, and international bodies have taken steps to begin addressing these issues be it through the development of DEI initiatives or through work to establish international bodies and treaties. There is a lot of work that is still needed but we are definitely seeing steps in the right direction to ensure that we live in a more equitable society.

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