Biosecurity in the Wake of COVID-19: The Urgent Action Needed

Abstract: For years, the United States and many other countries have neglected biosecurity because policymakers have underestimated both the potential impact and likelihood of biological threats. COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the planet and could be followed by outbreaks of even more dangerous viral diseases. Meanwhile, advances in synthetic biology are transforming the potential threat posed by engineered pathogens, creating growing concern over biological attacks and bioterror. Given the scale of the threat, biosecurity needs to be a top priority moving forward. Not only do efforts need to be stepped up to try to prevent the next pandemic (natural or engineered), but resilience needs to be built by developing early warning systems, the capacity to track outbreaks, and medical countermeasures, including “next generation” vaccines. Ideally, efforts need to be globally coordinated, but if this is not possible, a ‘coalition of the willing’ led by the United States needs to step up. Given the current pandemic has resulted in an epidemic of mis- and dis-information and given public behavior is key in controlling the spread of viruses, winning public acceptance for public health measures will be imperative to tackling biological emergencies in the future.

With a quarter of a million dead in the United States and more than a million globally, a massive economic toll,a and a second wave in full swing in the northern hemisphere, the United States and other countries are paying a price for years of neglecting biosecurityb as a top-tier national security priority. For years, biosecurity has been the poor relation of the ‘other’ securities for one simple reason: policymakers and analysts failed to grasp just how devastating a highly transmissible new virus in a highly interconnected world could be, and viewed a devastating global pandemic or catastrophic bioterror attack as very unlikely.

This article first describes how the COVID-19 pandemic has upended such assumptions, requiring policymakers to rethink both the potential impact and likelihood of the most concerning biological threats (bio threats). Based on this author’s decades of experience confronting CBRN threats,c it then makes a series of observations on the approach now needed to counter biological threats.

Some have seen this crisis as a one-in-a-100-year event. But, as this article will outline, this is both naïve and risks creating complacency. Unless countries around the world develop a comprehensive biosecurity strategy and coordinate their efforts, pandemics (either natural or engineered) could devastate the planet every decade.

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