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Center for Health Security cosponsors international meeting on preventing high-impact biothreats

Meeting report enumerates urgent global actions needed to mitigate the consequences posed by deliberate or accidental biological events with the potential for global catastrophic, population-wide consequences

By Nick Alexopulos | Nov. 30, 2018

Wilton Park high-impact biothreats report cover
Meeting report

Scholars from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security joined an international group of more than 40 science and technical experts at a three-day meeting in the UK to consider new approaches for preventing, managing, and mitigating the most serious biological threats. Their recommendations are synthesized in a summary report, released today.

The event was held Nov. 7-9 at Wilton Park in partnership with the Center, the Future of Humanity Institute, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. Center participants included Director Tom Inglesby, MD, and senior scholars Nancy Connell, PhD, and Michael Montague, PhD.

High-impact biothreats, in the context of this meeting, are deliberate or accidental biological events with the potential for global catastrophic, population-wide consequences. “Urgent actions on a global scale are needed to mitigate the consequences posed by [these threats],” the sponsoring organizations noted in their report. The report cites the development and use of biological weapons as an example of a deliberate event, and the inadvertent release of dangerous agents or materials developed through biotechnology and living systems as an example of an accidental event.

Participants made a commitment to working within their respective countries and regions on initiatives to significantly lower the risk of such an event occurring. They developed multiple recommendations, grouped in three categories outlined in the report:

  • Strengthening the norms (i.e., “taboo”) against high-impact biothreats
  • Reducing the likelihood for advances in science and technology to increase potential for high-impact biothreats
  • Filling gaps and vulnerabilities in international capacity to respond to high-impact biothreats

Each recommendation is followed in the report by a broad range of specific action items, illustrative of the meeting’s effective facilitation of conversations that generated new ideas. Among the 22 action items: expand resources for the BWC Implementation Support Unit; develop a strategic plan for support and investment for broad-spectrum countermeasure development and rapid scale up, distribution, and flexibility of manufacturing; and harden global public health infrastructure against the threat of attack and deter and defend against disinformation designed to subvert response capacity.

Nearly everyone at the Wilton Park meeting agreed that current national and international initiatives to address bio-risks fail to sufficiently cover risks from high-consequence bioweapons.

Much of the Center’s current work focuses on similar challenges related to what it has defined as Global Catastrophic Biological Risks (GCBRs)—events in which biological agents could lead to a sudden, extraordinary, widespread disaster beyond the collective capability of national and international governments and the private sector to control. Earlier this year, the Center published a report that established a framework for identifying naturally occurring microorganisms that could become GCBRs. The Center’s Clade X pandemic tabletop exercise in the spring surfaced important policy issues and preparedness challenges that could be solved with sufficient political will and attention. In October, a Center project team released its report highlighting 15 promising technologies that, with strategic investment, could help make the world better prepared and equipped to prevent future infectious disease outbreaks from becoming GCBRs.

Wilton Park is a forum for strategic discussion on issues of international security, prosperity, and justice. It organizes more than 60 events a year at its headquarters in the UK and at other locations overseas.

More information on the high-impact biothreats meeting is available at wiltonpark.org.uk.

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.