The risks of a global catastrophic biological event are rising, and international leaders and organizations today are unprepared to react with the kind of effective, coordinated response needed to investigate and identify the pathogen, prevent the spread of disease, and, most importantly, save lives, according to a new report from NTI | bio, Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, and the Center for Global Development.
A Spreading Plague: Lessons and Recommendation for Responding to a Deliberate Biological Event offers recommendations for urgent action to address this deficit.
“Without the right procedures and tools in place, there is little doubt that a rapidly spreading biological event would place overwhelming stress on the people and institutions responsible for response,” the report states. “The lack of established procedures would very likely undermine the trust and cooperation needed among health professionals, humanitarian responders, and security officials who would be aiming for a coordinated, effective response.”
The paper presents key findings from a dramatic tabletop exercise based in “Vestia,” a fictitious country embroiled in civil unrest and facing an unusual, fast-moving outbreak that appears to be plague. Highlighting the gaps in preparedness, the exercise sparked disagreements among the participants—senior leaders from security, public health, humanitarian, and political sectors—as they struggled to coordinate and rapidly respond.
Organizers of the event—Elizabeth Cameron of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Rebecca Katz of the Center for Global Health Science and Security at Georgetown University, and Jeremy Konyndyk of the Center for Global Development—which was held on the eve of the 2019 Munich Security Conference, drew on the exercise to develop recommendations for critical improvements to avoid catastrophic consequences of both deliberate and other high-consequence biological events. The recommendations include steps to enhance international coordination, information sharing, and investigation and attribution, and to increase financing for response and preparedness.
Organizers noted that many of the gaps in preparedness and response have been well-known for years—but they must not be viewed as intractable. “Leaders across all sectors have an obligation to develop better systems, mechanisms, and procedures for saving lives and preventing future potentially catastrophic outbreaks,” the report states. “The risks are rising. It is time to meet this challenge.”