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Southeast Asian countries identify shared biosecurity priorities in multilateral dialogue with US officials

Latest meeting hosted by Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security continues to foster engagement that helps improve preparedness and response in region

JHCHS and Southeast Asian multilateral dialogue stakeholders

By Nick Alexopulos | July 24, 2017

The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security gathered biosecurity experts from Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United States at a meeting this spring to identify shared priorities that underscore the dynamic and challenging biosecurity issues facing countries in Southeast Asia.

The meeting, held April 3-5, 2017, at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, DC, was part of an ongoing multilateral dialogue hosted by the Center to promote engagement that helps improve national and regional response to natural, accidental, and deliberate biological events. Southeast Asia’s increasingly complex biosecurity risk landscape—natural outbreaks of emerging and potential pandemic pathogens, porous borders and highly mobile populations, rising terrorism threats, and a rapidly growing biotechnology industry—has dialogue countries exploring how they can work together to strengthen preparedness.

Meeting Report:
Strategic Multilateral Biosecurity Dialogue among Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the United States
 

“Regional coordination and collaboration are vital to rapidly detecting, characterizing, and responding to infectious disease events to reduce the chance of global transmission, but many practical, financial, and political barriers make close coordination a challenge,” the Center’s project team said in its meeting report released in July 2017.

Sectors including public health and healthcare, the military, homeland security/home affairs, foreign affairs and international relations, public policy, academia, weapons of mass destruction nonproliferation, and journalism were represented at the meeting. Stakeholders from the Philippines and Thailand attended as well, joining the group as observers for the second year of this dialogue.

The group identified the following key areas of shared priority:

  • Strengthening early detection and response: Dialogue participants noted that regional disease events such as SARS (2003) and Nipah virus (1999), along with recent international outbreaks of Ebola, Zika, and MERS, illustrate the scope and severity of the threat that emerging infectious diseases pose to Southeast Asia. They acknowledged the need to build and maintain strong surveillance and detection tools and systems supported by strong collaboration across response sectors.
  • Making the case for biosecurity investments as part of national security planning: Dialogue participants agreed that one of the principal challenges of establishing effective biosecurity-related programs is securing long-term, reliable governmental support and funding in the absence of new, acute disease events. One approach could be to frame and quantify the impact of disease events and the importance of biosecurity investments in terms that senior government officials can more easily appreciate (eg, economy, trade, national security, infrastructure), thus clarifying the need for their full engagement.
  • Reducing biosecurity threats and risk in laboratories: Dialogue participants were concerned about the potential for the development and release—accidental or deliberate—of dangerous and/or novel pathogens that could affect national, regional, and global health security. The biotechnology sector in Southeast Asia is booming, but regulation and oversight of emerging fields (eg, synthetic biology, gain-of-function research) is limited in many countries. To address these challenges, participants recommended a focus on the broad needs around laboratory safety and security, including operational, regulatory, and physical security as well as personnel monitoring programs.
  • Advancing national implementation and transparency for the Biological Weapons Convention: While all participating and observer nations in this dialogue are states parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), several participants said that there is little guidance or support for implementing the BWC at the national level, including developing associated national-level legislation. They suggested that international assistance, bilateral or multilateral, would be welcome for many of the countries participating in this dialogue in implementing and enforcing the BWC at the national level.

This “Track II” dialogue originated in 2014 as a bilateral effort, facilitated by the Center, between Singapore and the United States and expanded to include Malaysia and Indonesia in 2015. The Center also facilitates a Track II biosecurity dialogue between India and the United States. Track II dialogues are an opportunity for respected, experienced stakeholders inside and outside of government to collectively identify important issues that merit official policy engagement between and among governments (ie, “Track I” level). With this foundation, participants are prepared to engage senior leadership in their home countries in an influential way.

Southeast Asian dialogue participants are already making inroads. Malaysian and Indonesian participants briefed their ministers of health and defense, and Singaporean participants provide regular updates on the dialogue at the permanent secretary level. Establishing relationships and building preparedness, surveillance, and response capacity in Southeast Asia directly benefits health and national security efforts in the United States.

The next meeting is scheduled for spring 2018 in Indonesia.

Funding and support for the dialogue continues to be provided through the Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering WMDs.

About the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security:
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security works to protect people from epidemics and disasters and build resilient communities through innovative scholarship, engagement, and research that strengthens the organizations, systems, policies, and programs essential to preventing and responding to public health crises. The Center is part of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and is located in Baltimore, Md.