Covid-19, which is often compared to the flu pandemic of 1918, has been called a once-in-a-generation event. But the outbreak of MERS and SARS in recent years shows just how frequent emerging diseases can occur. In a connected world, those who have been exposed to a new pathogen can easily make their way around the globe in a matter of hours.
A significant increase in biological containment facilities over the last 30 years also poses a grave risk. There are now more than 50 facilities around the world that are categorized as “Level 4” labs, which contain the deadliest pathogens and require the highest level of safety, and thousands more are designated “Level 3” facilities that contain infectious agents or toxins that may cause potentially lethal infection. While it is highly unlikely that Covid-19 emerged from a laboratory in Wuhan, the pandemic has raised the specter of a possible leak or act of bioterrorism. Containment facilities are an Achilles heel in biosecurity, and these labs, along with those who work there, should be subject to greater international scrutiny.
We also face additional biosecurity threats, now that advances in technology mean that many civilian research projects in medicine have the potential to be used in military applications. Controversial experiments in synthetic biology, including the synthesis of polio virus from its genetic sequence, and the modification of H5N1 for airborne transmission in mammals, have also led to calls for tighter controls on the materials and information used to engineer these pathogens.
We must not ignore the threat of bad actors gaining access to these dangerous pathogens, which are the ultimate terror weapons, due to their potentially massive impact. As an expert on chemical and biological weapons, I have investigated ISIS’ attempts to introduce the bubonic plague to refugee camps in Syria.
In Germany, security services interdicted vast amounts of the toxin ricin, which, authorities said, a couple was planning to use in a biological attack in 2018. Taking the terror threat and the continued increase of Level 3 and 4 containment facilities into account, the prospect of an “I am Pilgrim” scenario, detailed in the 2013 novel by Terry Hayes, is not as far-fetched as it first appears. For those who have not read this epic work of fiction, a terrorist tries to infect the US with a vaccine-resistant smallpox virus.
It should also be said that the spread of a pathogen like the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19 has blindsided biosecurity experts and likely changed the calculus behind biological terrorism. Instead of looking to weaponize a highly virulent pathogen like anthrax — the spore-forming bacterium which was infamously mailed out to media outlets and politicians in a bio attack in 2001, killing five people and injuring 17 more — bad actors are now likely considering the efficacy of a less virulent but highly transmissible pathogen like SARS-CoV-2, which has brought the world to its knees in the last year. This pathogen has shown that transmissibility — rather than toxicity — is a major factor when it comes to mass disruption.
As the world begins to emerge from this nightmare of a pandemic, the good news is this: we have the chance, the global desire and the tailwind to mitigate this threat if we take action.
When it comes to policies that are already in place, there is the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC), a multilateral treaty that went into effect in 1975, which prohibits the development, production, acquisition and stockpiling of biological agents and toxins and any related delivery systems that have “no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.”
However, it is poorly funded in comparison to other treaties like the Chemical Weapons Convention, and does not have a corresponding body like the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to police it. A quick and effective win could be to properly fund the BTWC and create either an intergovernmental organization to police it or expand the OPCW’s remit to do so. The World Health Organization could also implement an early warning system to predict pandemics, showing its progress around the globe.
For many biosecurity threats, medical countermeasure (MCMs) development is as close to a silver bullet as it gets. MCMs are products such as vaccines, biologics and pharmaceutical drugs that can diagnose, protect or treat the effects of a naturally occurring new disease or biological attack. In the future, it may be more cost effective to pay the pharmaceutical industry ahead of time to produce treatments and vaccines rather than wait for a pandemic to develop. In response to hoaxes inspired by the Anthrax attacks, I developed something called BIAS (Biological Immediate Action System), based on a handheld assay, which can detect up to eight pathogens and deliver a result in less than 15 minutes. Since many of these attacks used various white powders to imitate anthrax, this simple method reduced their impact.
When it comes to civilian research projects, or biological containment facilities, national governments and private entities can create regulations around the shipment or downloads of any sensitive materials, and require those handling these pathogens to either register their information in a database or undergo background checks.
The pandemic has also underscored the importance of manufacturing and stockpiling medical gear including personal protective equipment to avoid logjams in the supply chain and a reliance on other countries like China for these critical supplies. Providing accurate and accessible information to the public is also key; propaganda and disinformation must not be taken lightly. Malevolent operators have targeted vaccine development and now anti-vaxxers are trying to stoke skepticism about the Covid-19 vaccines In a world rife with conspiracy theories, the sheer quantity of disinformation is enough to confuse people and make them doubt the truth — a problem some of our politicians and policy makers do not appear to fully grasp.
Going forward, we should treat biosecurity threats with the same urgency in the 21st century as world leaders approached atomic bombs in the 20th century. If we are to avoid a biological weapons attack or another disease outbreak, regardless of whether it is a naturally occurring or not, we must get our biosecurity plans up to speed. This will require international cooperation — something that has been in short supply at the UN Security Council in recent years. A first step would be for the UN Security Council to fund and enforce the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention.
Given how poorly many countries have responded to the Covid-19 pandemic, improving biosecurity in the face of what could be significantly worse biological threats in future is imperative. We cannot afford to get this wrong a second time.