Biosecurity: Is it time for the world to be ready?

Chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE examines the biosecurity challenges facing the world, amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Over the last few weeks, we have learned from the French open-source investigation site Openfacto that Russia most likely has a biological weapons programme, alongside their chemical weapons programme.

China is just allowing WHO investigators to the Wuhan Level 4 containment laboratory, where some American politicians claimed last month that COVID emanated from, but long after the 'COVID' horse has bolted. 

Notwithstanding this, China has many questions to answer and the many high-level biosecure labs around the world, storing pathogens like COVID are a key vulnerability.

If this is not the global wake-up call to get biosecurity sorted, an awful lot of people may have died from COVID, amid little advancement in this area.

Biosecurity is the poor relation of the 'other' securities, especially cyber, for good reasons.

A pandemic or biological terror appeared an unlikely threat especially on a global scale, until COVID struck. 

The US and the UK must now prepare for the next pandemic or biological terror event to ensure physical and economic resilience.

Like any threat, with the appropriate mitigation in place, upfront, respective governments can provide the required resilience to their people and economies.

In the future, we should think of weaponised biology as no less of an existential threat to the planet in the 21st Century than weaponised atomic science to the 20th.

A soldier practises use decontamination powder during Exercise Shader Tempest, a chemical attack scenario, last year (Picture: MOD).

From a biosecurity perspective, the impact of a 'not very toxic' pathogen has blind-sided us all, possibly more than a very toxic one, due to its rapid global transmission. 

Advances in technology have meant that many civilian research projects in medicine have the potential to be used in military applications and biosecurity protocols are used to prevent dangerous biological materials from falling into the hands of malevolent parties.

Controversial experiments in synthetic biology, including the synthesis of poliovirus from its genetic sequence, and the modification of H5N1, a highly infectious flu variant, for airborne transmission in mammals, led to calls for tighter controls on the materials and information used to perform similar feats.

Ideas include better enforcement by national governments and private entities concerning shipments and downloads of such materials, and registration or background check requirements for anyone handling such materials.

The economic impact alone requires us to mitigate this threat, which hitherto the risk was 'likelihood low but impact massive' and with these odds, most thought a risk worth taking.

Not now; future likelihood is at least medium or likely and warrants our undivided attention.

The Salisbury nerve agent attack in 2018 is a massive neo advert to every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist of the huge impact to be gained from a chemical attack; COVID has, no doubt, done the same for biological attack.

It is very difficult for governments to take risk in such situations.

British soldier at Skripal house
British soldiers carrying out decontamination work on Sergei Skripal's Salisbury home in 2018.

There are the challenges we must address to develop resilience to the next pandemic or a bioterror attack, around policy, medicines and equipment.

When it comes to policy and legislation, there is the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC), ratified in 1975, though a poor cousin to the Chemical Weapons Convention, it is designed to prevent the development and proliferation of Biological Weapons.

However, it is poorly funded and supported and does not have a body like the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to police it.

A quick and effective win could be to properly fund the BTWC and create an Organisation for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons to police it – perhaps an extension of the OPCW's remit would be the most effective mechanism? 

Allied to a biological early warning system to track pandemics or bio terror, like a weather map, showing its progress around the globe and mostly likely run by the World Health Organisation; these two measures alone would put us well on the road to mitigating and suppressing these threats in future.

If we are not to suffer a COVID-type pandemic every five years or so, and the ultimate terror of a biological weapons attack, we must get our Bio Security plans up to speed in short order.

Biosecurity has been the poor relation of the other securities, especially cyber and it now requires our undivided attention.

Brexit and COVID-19 will fade into next year, but future pandemics and bioterror require active measures, currently missing, to make us all resilient to them. 

In the future, we should think of weaponised biology as no less of an existential threat in the 21st century to the planet, than weaponized atomic science in the 20th century.

By Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE, former British Army officer and former commanding officer of the UK's Joint Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Regiment and NATO's Rapid Reaction CBRN Battalion.

Cover image: A British solider simulating a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) attack scenario during a military exercise in 2020 (Picture: MOD).