Opinion

Have lessons been learned ahead of the next pandemic?

It is time to revamp and fund biosecurity, writes chemical weapons expert, write Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE and Tobias Ellwood MP.

By Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE and Tobias Ellwood MP

We may be finally getting in front of this current pandemic - but that doesn't mean we are better prepared for the next one.

Despite the global shock of COVID-19, the chances of a man-made pandemic have never been greater. 

Advances in synthetic biology and the ease of manipulating pathogens in even the most rudimentary laboratories mean that DNA experimentation now goes on not only in laboratories but in garages and kitchens all over the world.

Imagine if the Marburg virus outbreak in west Africa was turbo-charged throughout the world by a rogue scientist.

It has an 80% mortality rate, compared to COVID's 1%.

A human-created pandemic with this pathogen is an unimaginable horror with a global shock many times greater than COVID. 

Little wonder then that in 2018 the states that signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention identified gene editing, gene synthesis, gene drives and metabolic pathway engineering as research that is as easy to use for evil purposes as it is for good.  

Many countries believe that the increased availability of these technologies could facilitate deliberate misuse, including the development of biological weapons by bad actors for terrorist attacks. 

Not that states are interested. 

The Telegraph reported recently that scientists in Wuhan were preparing to release bats infected with COVID as early as 2018.

Nevertheless, the Chinese government has blocked any further investigation of the origins of coronavirus by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and dismissed out of hand the theory that the disease originated from a laboratory leak.

So, no surprise that preventing bio-terrorism - or what we used to call weapons of mass destruction – is starved of any meaningful regulation and funding.

There is currently no senior official in charge of biosecurity in Whitehall, and most effort globally seems to be in reacting to the current pandemic, rather than preventing the next one.

No doubt, there is far more money in biotics and vaccines than preventative measures.

Watch: How the military has helped the UK fight coronavirus.

Big pharmaceutical companies have resisted over-regulation and, pre-coronavirus, there was no great pressure on governments to fund such regulation and policing.

This is why the United Nations (UN), and richer countries, must act.

It cannot be a great idea to wait until next year for the Government to begin to identify its 'lessons learnt' from this pandemic.

So what can we do? 

The number one action the UK Government could carry out to prevent the next pandemic is to lead on international regulation and policing of biological science applications and research. 

There are more than 3,000 biosecure labs globally - some in unstable places where pathogens, like COVID, are worked on.

Around one million people are doing this work in unvetted and unregulated labs - some of them will be those bad actors.

There are also potentially many thousand clandestine labs around the globe which could be developing pathogens for nefarious reasons.

What policies can we use? 

First, there is a mechanism already in place called the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) for regulating labs and scientists, but it is very poorly funded and supported.

If we make the UN's BTWC fit for the purpose of regulating and policing biosecure labs like Wuhan Virology Lab and other clandestine labs, this should go a long way to preventing accidents or the development of pathogens like COVID into deadly weapons.

Watch: Is there a 'stigma' around military assistance?

Secondly, in order to achieve this level of regulation and policing the BTWC will require a body like the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to enforce compliance.

A quick win would be to extend the OPCW remit to cover biological investigations and prohibition.

After all, if the BTWC could mirror this very successful Chemical Weapons Convention, which has removed 99% of chemical weapons from the globe, we will go a long way to preventing the next pandemic and restricting bio terror. 

Thirdly, the World Health Organisation, which is also under-resourced and lacks horsepower, must be refocused on this deadly threat.

With the United States now re-engaged on the world stage, the WHO must again be centre stage.

China and Russia's involvement would be welcome, but both seem bent on gaining political and financial capital from the COVID-19 disaster and appear to have scant regard for citizens who have suffered as much as any.

Watch: COVID has shown world what a 'biological weapon could do'.

So, in short, we can prevent the next pandemic or bio-terror event if we empower the WHO and properly regulate and police all these labs by making the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention fit for purpose and broadening its remit.   

The BTWC should be the first port of call, as it is most likely the next pandemic will originate in some form from an unregulated lab.

We must not sit back and allow the next pandemic to happen.

Sadly, bad actors will be galvanised by COVID-19, and with the ease of synthetic biology, could try and replicate its awfulness for their own evil gains, while the chance of accidents at these thousands of bio labs is too probable to ignore.   

The one sure way to reduce these risks is to regulate and police these labs through a revamped and re-financed international accord.

This is something the UK, as a permanent member of the Security Council of the UN could drive forward for the good of the whole planet. 

It is time to revamp and fund biosecurity.

If we did then 'Global Britain' might be a slogan that finds a cause.