NTI | bio and VCDNP Host Discussion on Proposed Mechanism to Investigate High-Consequence Biological Events of Unknown Origin

NTI  and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Nonproliferation (VCDNP) co-hosted a meeting on June 7, 2022 to explore the possibility of establishing a new “Joint Assessment Mechanism” to strengthen UN-system capabilities to investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin. NTI | bio Vice President Dr. Jaime Yassif and NTI Sam Nunn Distinguished Fellow Angela Kane presented alongside Dr. James Revill, Head of the WMD Programme at the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR). The event was moderated by Elena K. Sokova, the Executive Director of VCDNP.

The meeting brought together approximately 100 attendees, both in-person and online, to discuss how the international community could develop a new mechanism for rapidly launching an internationally credible, evidence-based assessment of the origins of a high consequence biological event. This proposed new instrument—a concept that NTI has been developing in consultation with international experts—is provisionally called the “Joint Assessment Mechanism” and would complement current United Nations capabilities. It would address cases where there is ambiguity about the source of a biological event—specifically, whether it emerged naturally or was deliberately or accidentally released.

During the event, Yassif noted that ongoing uncertainty surrounding the source of COVID-19, as well as the current conflict in Ukraine, have highlighted critical gaps in the global biosecurity architecture—including the ability to rapidly discern the source of emerging pandemics of unknown origin. Kane added that, to help fill this gap,  NTI is proposing a 21st century mechanism, which would take advantage of new tools, methods, and technologies—such as bioinformatics, data science, and AI—to build a capability suited to today’s risk environment. Following the opening comments, Revill noted that while existing investigative capabilities within the UN system are being expanded, there is value in advancing and developing new methodologies and technical approaches to assess pandemic origins.

NTI originally recommended the establishment of a new Joint Assessment Mechanism in the 2020 report, “Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks,” which was based on lessons learned from a Munich Security Conference tabletop exercise. A full recording of the event is available here.

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