A new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) says some gaps need to be addressed in the international system to prevent and respond to biological events.
NTI is calling on national and global leaders to take action now to prevent future biological events that could match or exceed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Even as global leaders urgently respond to COVID-19, they must consider bold changes to the international biosecurity architecture to prevent an ever graver risk to the future of humanity,” the report, called Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks, said.
The report summarizes outcomes from an exercise that NTI convened with senior leaders in February 2020 at the Munich Security Conference, before the coronavirus spread globally. The fictional disease in the tabletop scenario similarly swept the globe to COVID-19.
“As NTI learned at the February exercise in Munich and as COVID-19 has demonstrated, the world’s extreme lack of preparedness sheds light on the critical importance of national leadership and effective, internationally coordinated efforts to marshal an effective response to this global crisis,” NTI Co-Chair and CEO Ernest J. Moniz, who chaired the February exercise, wrote in the report. “We have a responsibility to take action now to reduce emerging biological risks—before the next pandemic strikes.”
The exercise included more than a dozen current and former senior government officials, academics, and representatives from non-governmental organizations and the private sector. They came from all over the world, including Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America. The participants called out three major shortfalls in the global approach to biotechnology, biological weapons, and related risks.
One, it said the accelerating development, global spread, and accessibility of bioscience and biotechnology have not been matched with the development of norms and governance mechanisms to manage associated risks of deliberate misuse or accidental release of engineered pathogens.
Two, the report found that the international community lacks robust transparency measures to clarify the intentions and capabilities of bioscience research and development being conducted across the globe.
Three, internationally, the report found a critical gap in the capacity to rapidly investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin.
The report’s major recommendations call for leaders to reduce biotechnology risks and implement global norms for life science research; enhance transparency for bioscience research to build trust and reduce uncertainty; and develop the capacity to rapidly investigate biological events of unknown origin.
“The exercise highlighted the growing biological risks in an increasingly interconnected world and the possibility that future pandemics—particularly those caused by engineered or synthesized biological agents—could have even more severe consequences than the devastation wrought by COVID-19,” NTI | bio Senior Fellow and report author Jaime Yassif, said.