As questions about the source of the COVID-19 pandemic grabbed headlines once again, a critical question is being ignored: How do we figure out the origins of the next pandemic? And there will be a next one. Can we put systems in place now to tackle this challenge and support a more rapid, effective response?
Assessing the origins of a pandemic is a difficult but critically important task. Done correctly, such an assessment can provide information to inform the public health response and curtail the pathogen’s spread. In the event of a deliberate outbreak or accident, it can help us understand what happened so we can close dangerous biosecurity and biosafety gaps. Having a credible capability to discern pandemic origins is also essential for preventing future human-caused high-consequence biological events by signaling to malicious actors that they are likely to get caught if they attempt to carry out a bioweapons attack.
While the politics surrounding an outbreak cannot be ignored, the international community needs to get better at conducting evidence-based assessments of pandemic origins, in order to minimize and deflect the most polarizing voices in favor of objective scientific analysis. Nearly 7 million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide prove the stakes are high.
To address this need, the Nuclear Threat Initiative is working with international partners to establish a new Joint Assessment Mechanism (JAM) which would fill a significant gap in the international community’s ability to discern the source of high-consequence biological events of unknown origin. Its mandate would be to establish the facts — specifically, whether the event emerged naturally or was accidentally or deliberately released from an academic, commercial or government laboratory.
The challenges of discerning COVID-19 origins have highlighted the need for this capacity. National intelligence will always have limits, and U.S. intelligence assessments may be viewed by other countries as biased by parochial national interests and geopolitical competition. Determining the origins of a disease outbreak in a forum that is scientifically based, internationally trusted, and as insulated as possible from geopolitics will increase confidence in the eventual answer.
The international community has some mechanisms in place to help figure out the source of biological events, but there are significant gaps in these tools. On one end of the spectrum, the World Health Organization is well positioned to assess outbreaks of natural origin — so-called “spillovers” from animals to humans — and it has both a comparative advantage and clear support from its member states in these situations. However, WHO is still deciding how far it wants to go in assessing an outbreak’s origins once signs begin to emerge that it may have resulted from a lab accident or a deliberate bioweapons attack. This is an important decision because WHO needs to maintain the trust and openness of its member states to carry out its public health mission, and engaging in security-related issues could make this difficult.
On the other end of the spectrum, the United Nations secretary-general’s Mechanism (UNSGM) has the authority to investigate allegations of deliberate bioweapons use and is not subject to veto by members of the U.N. Security Council — a group that includes the U.S., China and Russia. However, the UNSGM’s mandate is limited. It can only investigate allegations of biological weapons use when countries bring them forward — and that has never happened, likely due to the very high bar for making a serious allegation which requires a lot of hard-to-collect evidence.
So, how could a new Joint Assessment Mechanism work, if the origin of the next large-scale biological event is unclear?
The JAM would be a standing entity with an internationally diverse roster of scientific experts responsible for conducting ongoing data analysis; this would provide a baseline awareness of current biological risks. The JAM would also be ready to rapidly launch an assessment of a biological event when triggered. To support its analytical work, the JAM would use modern tools and technologies, including bioinformatics, data science, and artificial intelligence.
We believe the JAM should be based in the Office of the U.N. secretary-general to provide the authority and flexibility to activate and deactivate the mechanism, as needed. This also would enable the JAM to serve as an honest broker, trusted by member states to conduct an unbiased assessment, and it would allow the secretary-general to draw upon existing capabilities under the UNSGM and the WHO.
In most cases, an early assessment would begin with a public health investigation conducted by WHO. It will be critical to establish clearly defined, evidence-based criteria for determining when and how to transition from a WHO-led public health investigation to the use of the JAM.
COVID-19 will not be the last pandemic many of us will face in our lifetimes. Knowing how a pandemic or other major biological event arose is too important a task to leave to national governments. Without independent attribution capability, we may learn the hard way that we’re not prepared for the next pandemic. Or the one after that.
Angela Kane is the former United Nations high representative for Disarmament Affairs and a senior advisor at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Jaime Yassif, Ph.D. is vice president for Global Biological Policy and Programs at NTI.