We must take action to guard against future global biological risks

Amid renewed controversy over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, President Biden has ordered a new investigation by the U.S. intelligence community to determine whether the virus emerged naturally or was accidentally released. The results could inform actions to prevent future pandemics, but no matter what they find, the world will remain vulnerable to devastating biological events that could meet or exceed the impact of COVID-19. 

The next catastrophe could be caused by the deliberate misuse of the tools of modern biology or a laboratory accident.  

Over the past 15 months, the world has come face-to-face with the devastating impact that a biological event can have on human health, economies and political stability — but biological risks are still growing. We’ve witnessed how global travel, trade, urbanization and environmental degradation can fuel the emergence and spread of infectious disease threats. However, the serious risks embedded in the very bioscience research and technology advances that offer vital innovations for human health remain less understood — even though they present opportunities for accidental release or deliberate abuse of biological agents that could cause as much or more harm than COVID-19.

These underlying risks are not new, but they have been exacerbated by the current pandemic, which has led to the proliferation of research into SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as its variants and other pathogens with pandemic potential. As new labs are built around the world to house this work, scientific and political leaders must ensure that necessary oversight and strong biosafety and biosecurity measures are in place. Perhaps even more crucial is ensuring responsible stewardship of so-called “dual-use” research that can, for example, provide insights into the transmissibility or lethality of certain viruses, but can also serve as a roadmap for creating new, more dangerous pathogens. In the wake of COVID-19, malicious actors may now recognize and act on the extraordinary disruptive potential of highly transmissible pathogens and other biological agents and use them to deliberately cause harm. 

National governments, international organizations and the scientific community must safeguard the global bioscience and biotechnology enterprise to build a future where it is possible to advance new biotechnologies while simultaneously reducing associated risks. To that end, our organization, NTI, is collaborating with the World Economic Forum and global experts to establish a new entity dedicated to this work. The mission is urgent. As the technical barriers to manipulating biological organisms continue to fall, a broader range of entities — including states, terrorist groups and other extremists — will have greater access to knowledge and opportunities to create deadly biological agents, potentially manufacturing the next pandemic.

To address these threats, the world needs stronger global biosecurity norms and more effective tools for life science governance. A new global entity could address the need for responsible stewardship throughout the bioscience and biotechnology research and development lifecycle — from initial conception and funding, through oversight of research and development, and on to publication or product commercialization. Governments are key to this work, but they have struggled to keep pace with rapid bioscience and biotechnology advances. According to the Global Health Security Index, fewer than 5 percent of countries provide oversight for dual-use research, including research with especially dangerous pathogens and toxins. And governments cannot safeguard bioscience and biotechnology on their own; they need engagement and action by the scientific research community, industry, philanthropy and international organizations.

This entity would fill a critical gap in the global biosecurity architecture. While the World Health Organization (WHO), the Biological Weapons Convention and other organizations carry out important and valuable work to address emerging biological risks associated with rapid technology advances, there is no single organization dedicated to this work as its top priority.

Finally, the challenges faced by WHO in definitively identifying the source of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate the need for an internationally credible, swift, transparent and science-based approach for prompt investigation when an outbreak occurs. The ability to rapidly discern the source of emerging pandemics is critical to mitigating their effects in real time and protecting against future risks. That’s why the world also needs a new, more effective mechanism to investigate the source of high-consequence biological events of unknown origin. If such a mechanism existed in 2020, we might have been able to avoid some of the recent challenges in discerning the origins of COVID-19.

The ongoing uncertainty about the source of COVID-19 highlights glaring gaps in international capabilities — both to prevent future high-consequence biological events and to reliably identify their origins if and when they occur. National and global leaders must learn from the current pandemic and take action to guard against future, potentially deadlier, global biological risks.

Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg is a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and interim vice president of Global Biological Policy and Programs at the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI). Dr. Jaime Yassif is senior fellow of Global Biological Policy and Programs at NTI.

Tags Biological weapons Coronavirus COVID-19 Infectious diseases Joe Biden lab-grown pathogen Pandemic pathogens

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