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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Reducing Biological Risks to Security

International Policy Recommendations for the Obama Administration

January 2009

This report was coordinated by the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This document reflects the outcome of discussions among the following individuals (organizations for identification purposes only):

Raphael Della Ratta, Partnership for Global Security
Gerald L. Epstein, Center for Strategic and International Studies
David Fidler, Indiana University School of Law
Elisa D. Harris, Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland
Jo Husbands, The National Academies
Barry Kellman, Depaul University School of Law
Daryl G. Kimball, Arms Control Association
Ken Luongo, Partnership for Global Security*
Michael Moodie, Independent Consultant
Randy Murch, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech)
Alan Pearson, Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation
Jonathan B. Tucker, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies*

While not all participants agreed with every detail of these recommendations, there is strong agreement on the broad thrust of the international policy initiatives outlined here.

Executive Summary

The rapid advance and global spread of biotechnology and the life sciences promise enormous benefits for public health and opportunities for promoting sustainable economic development. At the same time, these trends are exacerbating the risk that biotechnology might accidentally, inadvertently, or deliberately be used in ways that cause harm. Because of the global diffusion of the life sciences, global approaches are needed to reduce these risks while securing the benefits of biotechnology.

Yet efforts to advance global action face significant political and economic challenges, including differences in national priorities and capabilities and concerns about policy actions that might threaten national sovereignty. In the United States, bioterrorism remains a primary concern. But in most developing countries, primary concerns are the risks to human and animal health and well-being from natural disease outbreaks exacerbated by inadequate public health and agricultural resources, capacity, and infrastructure. Developing countries do not want counter-bioterrorism initiatives to impede or divert resources from efforts to strengthen public health and agriculture.

The challenge of reducing biological risks is also complicated by the increasing importance of the private sector and academia in biotechnology and the life sciences. Engaging these non-State actors is critical, but many participants in industry and academia do not fully appreciate the potential risks associated with their work. Limited oversight and transparency heighten uncertainty about private-sector products and practices. Greater involvement, interaction and communication among these and many other stakeholders are key to effectively addressing 21st century biological threats. New partnerships and cooperative international security mechanisms, built on the normative and legal foundations of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the International Health Regulations 2005 (IHR 2005), must be established.

In recent years, the U.S. government has strengthened its national preparedness and response capabilities for catastrophic disease events, including bioterrorism. But it has paid inadequate attention to prevention and response measures internationally, thereby increasing our vulnerability to a significant biological event and heightening the skepticism of other countries about our commitment to either improving global public health or reducing deliberate and accidental biological risks to global security.

The Obama Administration can change course, correct this deficit, and take strong action to reduce biological risks to security. To this end, the United States should:

  • Pursue multilateral efforts to establish internationally harmonized standards for pathogen and laboratory safety and security and to provide technical and financial assistance to developing countries to facilitate their adoption, sustainable implementation, and enforcement of national measures for the safety and security of biological agents;
  • Pursue bilateral, regional and multilateral efforts to strengthen national criminal legislation and law enforcement capabilities for detecting, interdicting, investigating and prosecuting biological crimes, and promote international legal and technical cooperation towards these ends;
  • Support efforts to strengthen the UN Secretary-Generals mechanism for investigating allegations of biological weapons use and to establish a capability to investigate alleged breaches of BWC obligations if the Security Council determines that investigation is warranted;
  • Pursue stronger confidence-building and other transparency measures designed to provide mutual reassurance that national biodefense and other dual-use activities comply with the BWC;
  • Strengthen cooperative efforts to improve national, regional, and multinational surveillance and response capabilities with respect to outbreaks of infectious diseases, whether naturally occurring or man-made; and
  • Support the development of international mechanisms that enhance the coordination and implementation of biological threat reduction policies.

To create coherence in the face of competing priorities, a careful balance must be maintained among policy attention to intentional biological threats, to accidents, and to naturally occurring infectious diseases. Although the initiatives proposed here focus primarily on deliberate, inadvertent, and accidental disease threats, they aim wherever possible to generate synergies with efforts to counter naturally occurring infectious diseases and to promote global biotechnology development. However, these initiatives will achieve only limited results if the United States does not make a serious and sustained commitment to addressing broader global public health concerns. U.S. capacity-building assistance must help recipient states meet their social and economic needs and support recipient states ownership of their own capacity development.

In the coming years, U.S. pursuit of its bio-risk reduction objectives will take place in a world of increasing multipolarity and deepening fiscal and economic challenges. These trends and challenges make the task of achieving greater security for the United States more difficult. They also highlight the need, and provide opportunities, for our nation to renew its commitment to productive global partnerships and engagement.

*Member of the Arms Control Association Board of Directors