Good afternoon, Honorable Andrew Weber, Dr. Lela Bakanidze, Mr. Visser, distinguished guests. It’s an honor to be here today to provide keynote remarks alongside such esteemed colleagues.
In my capacity as Under Secretary, I oversee three State Department bureaus: the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs; the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance; and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. A significant part of our mission is to prevent biological threats.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how devastating an infectious disease can be, and how it can have such a profound effect on our daily lives, especially the loss of life of those closest to us. On a global scale, we collectively realized the need for all countries to come together and prioritize efforts to prevent, prepare for, detect, and respond to pandemics and other health security threats. We must work together to swiftly share and integrate experiences from around the world to improve these capabilities, including better coordination across various sectors. We also need to be able to take rapid, transparent, and accountable actions and apply the critical lessons learned from this pandemic and past health emergencies. Now is the time to deliberately integrate these lessons into regional, national, and global efforts to improve capacities and strengthen the global health security architecture. We must prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats and infectious disease outbreaks, regardless of whether they are naturally occurring, or accidentally or deliberately spread.
T Family Efforts on COVID-19 Responses
On the global scale, the United States is committed to the Intergovernmental Negotiating Body (INB) process at the World Health Organization, and to developing an international instrument that effectively addresses the gaps and weaknesses in the global health architecture exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and past health emergencies, and enables meaningful action, transparency, and accountability for pandemic prevention, preparedness, and response in the future. Since the pandemic, the offices I oversee worked quickly and diligently with broader State Department and interagency stakeholders to enhance bio surveillance capabilities, promote multisectoral coordination, and strengthen biosafety and biosecurity practices with partner countries. We also worked to build and strengthen multilateral nonproliferation regimes such as the Biological Weapons Convention, the Australia Group, and the UN Security Council Resolution 1540.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear that we, as a global community, have more work to do in this space. We need to strengthen biosecurity and biosafety around the world. The pandemic response created new challenges in these areas. It forced our health care and public health systems to do more – stretching the capacity of the workforce and systems for disease surveillance, performing laboratory diagnostics, and coordinating emergency responses. In many places, adequate training and administrative controls for biosafety and biosecurity risks are still needed.
The pandemic has also catalyzed the development of new tools and technologies, and pushed them to become better integrated within laboratories. However, these advancements have given rise to new challenges, such as cybersecurity issues related to laboratory biosecurity and biosafety. We need to learn from these lessons, and this requires that we facilitate sharing of strong laboratory biosecurity, biosafety, and cybersecurity practices within the international bioscience community. But more than just share, we must integrate these best practices into the routines and operations of our critical research institutes and laboratories.
At the Department of State, we are taking steps to integrate these security measures by partnering with the International Federation of Biosafety Associations to develop a new certification to increase cyber risk awareness and encourage adoption of cybersecurity best practices in biological laboratories. This will help protect sensitive research, data, databases, and facilities, and addresses another important lesson many government officials and policy makers realized early in the pandemic: that national legislation pertaining to public health emergencies, biosafety, and biosecurity was often inadequate or too antiquated to face modern threats.
Developing a national biosafety and biosecurity strategy and regulatory framework while responding to a pandemic is not ideal, leaving the implementing government bodies, such as the Ministry of Health or Emergency Response Agency, to grapple with how to quickly respond to biological crises without the necessary tools or guidelines. By coming together, as we have here today, we will be better prepared to face the next pandemic.
We must use the time between emergencies [outbreaks] to strengthen international and national regulatory capacities, as well as national laws and other measures that we need to prevent, prepare for, detect, and respond to public health emergencies, and to improve biosecurity and biosafety. We should also use this time to build awareness, trust, transparency, and cooperation among the appropriate stakeholders, including the bioscience community.
For example, I am pleased to have the opportunity at this conference to meet with distinguished colleagues from Georgia’s Richard G. Lugar Center for Public Health Research, a public biomedical research laboratory owned and operated by Georgia that was established through a U.S. partnership in 2011. This national capacity did not develop overnight, and required years of Georgian investment, commitment, and step by step improvement in their systems to detect, report, diagnose, and respond to the presence of animal and human disease outbreaks. The Lugar Center has been a trailblazer in developing these capacities and was instrumental in Georgia’s fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The U.S. is proud of our peaceful partnership with the Lugar Center, the pre-eminent public health institution in Georgia, which maintains strong and longstanding partnership with the United States.
I applaud the professionalism and openness of the Lugar Center staff who opened their doors to the media earlier this year in a show of transparency. For example, Georgia has become a world leader in reducing the health burden of Hepatitis C. To do that, labs are needed to diagnose people appropriately and provide the molecular fingerprinting of the Hepatitis C virus to see if the virus is changing. The Lugar Center provides this diagnostic testing capacity. With its program expansion, the Center was able to provide quality control on testing done at other labs. When the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, these capabilities, both the equipment and especially the very capable people, proved crucial.
Georgia was able to start diagnosing quickly to exponentially expand testing with good quality control, and to track COVID variants with molecular fingerprinting. Georgia is a regional leader in testing and variant tracking because of the Lugar Center. COVID-19 showcases this progress. Unknown threats in the future will continue to test us. It is critical that we continue to work together transparently, learn from both our successes and failures, and share our experiences with colleagues.
Impact and Role of Georgian Women
We also recognize the role that Georgia’s women, throughout all sectors of healthcare, have played in preventing, treating, and educating society on COVID-19 and other health security threats. We have seen data on how the pandemic and its responses disproportionately impacted women, girls, and those historically marginalized. Women comprise over 70 percent of the global health and social care workforce, and were required, either by the nature of their jobs or the need for financial stability, to put themselves at risk every day. For them and others such as those living in rural areas, of a lower socio-economic status, ethnic minorities, and other intersecting factors, access to PPE, treatments, and public education were noticeable sparser; it is a matter of national security to ensure that people in these communities not only have a seat at the table, but a voice in the decisions.
Since 2017, Georgia’s status has steadily increased in terms of initiatives towards women’s inclusion, justice, and security, and ranks in the top 25 percent of countries doing so as measured by the global Women Peace and Security Index. This has been even more important since 2020, as these aspects, as cross-analyzed with the INFORM Epidemic Risk Index, reveal a strong correlation between the status of a country’s inclusion, and its ability to respond to a widespread pandemic.
We should not need this type of research – it should be common sense that including all of society will warrant more sustainable and long-lasting solutions. Research and development of new tools and technologies must consider all people within a society and assess potential impacts, both positive and negative. Risk management and early action requires collaboration and communication between health sectors, emergency responders, private sector, and grassroots organizations to adequately address a biosecurity threat.
Strengthening International Obligations
Strengthening national laws and other measures for public health emergencies, biosecurity, and biosafety also supports nations’ commitments to international obligations and norms. For example, national implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention requires countries to prevent the development of biological weapons. Countries are also encouraged to regularly coordinate and interact with the bioscience community to ensure that work is carried out in a safe, secure, and responsible manner. As you well know, biosafety officers are often responsible for managing both the safety and security risks of programs. These are mutually reinforcing goals and it is important that your combined expertise drives your work. Let us take the opportunity during this two-day conference to introduce ourselves to each other, share our experiences, and learn from each other.
Coordination among government public health sectors, law enforcement and other first responders, the private sector, civil society, bioscience researchers, and international communities is vitally important if we are to strengthen global health security and effectively respond to future outbreaks and biological threats.
In any large-scale biological incident, the medical community is often not the first to respond to an outbreak – it is normally the emergency responders including law enforcement. And most often, the emergency response sectors do not routinely handle high consequence pathogens and do not have the training or experience to operate under the unique conditions of a biological incident. So, we must ensure that multiple sectors within societies are trained to engage in outbreak detection and response for effective mitigation. I recall the scenes from the early days of the pandemic. First responders were on the frontlines of the outbreak response, and they were being called upon to transport sick patients, enforce social distancing, and other measures to help contain the pandemic. Not only did those first responders play a critical role in the pandemic response, but they put their own health at risk. Remember that in the early days of the outbreaks, we were without vaccines, without testing, and often without personal protective equipment.
For events that are potentially deliberate or accidental, law enforcement teams depend on training and equipment to: 1) Detect a biological incident; 2) Safely and securely handle and transport pathogen samples, including using personal protective equipment; 3) Decontaminate and implement other measures to prevent further spread of the infectious disease; 4) Disseminate information regarding the incident to the public; 5) And coordinate with the public and animal health sectors.
In addition, the pandemic showed us that multisectoral coordination between the public and private sectors can enable a faster response in several ways. Governments and the private sector working together were able to quickly develop, manufacture, and distribute safe and effective vaccines, diagnostics, and therapeutics. In the area of health security information sharing, close coordination among the government, public health, and the bioscience research communities was vital to detect and assess emerging threats and to counter misinformation. Ensuring timely, accurate, and reliable information is available to the public was, and continues to be, critical to response efforts in order to reduce confusion around the nature of biological risks and biological response best practices. The pandemic also taught us of the very real challenges with mis- and disinformation, and how that can adversely affect public health responses, and affect international cooperation to tackle these enormous challenges together as a global community.
The Way Forward
The COVID-19 pandemic has driven home the point that we must learn the lessons from past health emergencies and finally break the cycle of pandemic panic and neglect. This includes working to address new biosafety and biosecurity challenges. The rapid expansion of new vaccines, diagnostic tools, therapeutics, and other medical countermeasure capacities helped meet the demands of this pandemic. Work is ongoing to consider how best to build on these capacities and create sustainable, adaptable, rapidly scalable, and geographically distributed capabilities to better address future threats.
Most countries now recognize the importance of investing in national and regional approaches to build health security and resiliency to prepare for future pandemics and other unknown health threats. This includes the need to enhance bio surveillance, laboratory capacity, workforce development, and emergency response. It also includes mitigating the risks associated with biological facilities and professionals handling and storing infectious pathogens around the world. Ensuring that facilities and individuals handling pathogens are equipped to do so safely, securely, and responsibly is critical. Therefore, building biosafety and biosecurity capacity remains a top priority for my team.
Now more than ever before, we must strive for enhanced security at laboratories, and workforce training in biosafety and biosecurity best practices to ensure safe pathogen handling, secure storage, and waste management. We need to strengthen our national capacities and other measures for public health emergencies and biosafety and biosecurity, as these are critical tools to prevent accidental or deliberate biological incidents, and enable a more rapid response should prevention prove inadequate.
As President Biden and Secretary Blinken have said, an effective approach to strengthening global health security requires an all-of-government and all-of-society approach in an inclusive and equitable manner. Our health sectors, security forces, and first responder communities will be stronger if they work together; if we cross-train these sectors now on biological incident detection and response, we will have a more coordinated response and save more lives in the future.
As biological threats continue to be a significant international security concern, I urge us all to continue scrutinizing the areas of our pandemic response that were insufficient and take action at all levels and within all sectors to ensure rapid, effective, and coordinated biological incident prevention, preparedness, detection, and responses in the future. Thank you.