Good morning, it is a pleasure to be here today to participate in this important international Congress on Biosafety, Biosecurity and Biodefense – three issues that are closely aligned with my work in the U.S. Government. I am extremely honored to participate with such a distinguished and well-respected group of participants and technical experts, namely Ambassador van den IJssel whom we heard from this morning.
I would like to thank the organizers for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts on global health security and discuss how the United States Government, and particularly the Department of State, is supporting efforts to confront global biological threats. I would especially like to thank the Malaysian Ministry of Defense for their foresight in convening this important meeting. I look forward to further discussions throughout this Congress that will help us better address the common and complex biological threats we face today as a global community.
The 21st century promises tremendous opportunities to improve health and well-being through advances in the biological sciences. While these advances are meant in part to counter the elevated risk of a natural pandemic, they also increase the risk that dangerous pathogens are accidentally released, or misused to cause a bioterrorist attack by those who wish to harm us. Additionally, many nations must contend with highly virulent and debilitating diseases that affect both their citizens and livestock. Public health efforts must be managed in the context of a variety of governance, infrastructure and security challenges.
During this decade alone, South and Southeast Asia have been at the forefront of several devastating infectious disease outbreaks, ranging from highly pathogenic avian influenza outbreaks – both H5N1 and H1N1 - to the emergence of novel pathogens previously unknown to humankind. The effect of emerging infectious diseases on human populations is significant: the emergence of HIV in the early 1980’s has caused 25 million deaths globally and had devastating effects on economic development in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, the 2002 SARS outbreak that began in China ultimately claimed 775 lives and cost Asian economies an estimated $18 billion. Epidemiological models predict that avian influenza could pose a serious global health risk. U.S. experts predict that a significant influenza pandemic could affect up to 90 million people in the United States alone, with considerable national economic impacts, including a potential cost of $700 billion. A global influenza pandemic could have a similarly devastating impact on Southeast Asia.
Furthermore, the globalized nature of our international transportation networks has increased the ease and rate at which infectious diseases move around the world. One can board a plane in Washington, DC and be in Malaysia in less than 24 hours, as I did in coming here this week. The world witnessed a profound example of how infectious diseases are not contained by international borders with the emergence of SARS.
The world’s population is rapidly expanding and more and more people are migrating toward large, urban centers. Urbanization and the dynamic movement of people, animals and goods in the global marketplace coalesce to create ideal conditions for the emergence and rapid dissemination of dangerous infectious diseases.
This scenario of evolving biological risks is further complicated by a rapidly expanding bioscience sector and the construction of increasingly sophisticated high containment laboratory infrastructure, resulting in a greater potential for the accidental release or intentional misuse of dangerous pathogens. This raises the important question of how to promote the expansion of biosciences and biotechnology capacity while encouraging the adoption of adequate and appropriate safety and security measures.
It is important that biological research facilities and life scientists recognize their responsibility to protect both staff and the surrounding environment from the devastating effects that an accidental release of pathogens could produce. At the same time, we have a shared responsibility to protect against the threat of intentional misuse of dangerous pathogens for bioterrorism.
While U.S. Government efforts to mitigate biological risks have grown over the past two decades, the Obama Administration recognizes that we must simultaneously promote both global scientific development while supporting efforts to ensure international security. This recognition led to the development of the 2009 U.S. National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats which clearly states, “We must support the ongoing revolution in the life sciences by seeking to ensure that resulting discoveries and their applications, used solely for peaceful and beneficial purposes, are globally available. At the same time, we must be mindful of the risks throughout history posed by those who sought to misuse the products of new technologies for harmful purposes.”
The biological risks we face today come not only from naturally-occurring emerging infectious diseases, but also from deliberate misuse. In the United States, letters containing anthrax that were sent in 2001 provided a wake-up call on biological terrorism. In the intervening years, transnational terrorist groups have stated their intent to acquire and release dangerous biological agents. Today, the biological threat ranges from highly sophisticated, state-level bioweapons programs, to transnational terrorist groups and lone actors acquiring biological materials and expertise.
Terrorist organizations know no boundaries and have shown themselves to be opportunistic when it comes to acquiring or developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The reality we must confront is that many of the materials, technologies and expertise widely available to animal and public health practitioners has the potential to be misused by terrorist organizations to produce a biological weapon.
The United States has a long history of providing nonproliferation assistance that grew with the launch of the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program following the fall of the former Soviet Union in the early 1990’s. The guiding objective was to prevent the remaining stockpiles of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and/or weapons applicable scientific expertise from falling into the hands of criminal organizations, terrorist networks, and other non-state actors. The program evolved over time to span several agencies and its mission continues to evolve, even as we meet here today.
Today the U.S. Government is adapting the principles and approaches from early nonproliferation assistance programs to meet the evolving nature of 21st Century biological threats. Understanding the dynamic nature of biological threats will help determine the future success of the U.S. Government’s nonproliferation efforts.
For our part, the State Department launched a new program in 2006, the Biological Engagement Program (BEP), which focused on finding new ways to leverage lessons learned in the Former Soviet Union to effectively confront evolving global biological threats and challenges. No longer were engagements solely intended to focus on scientists with bioweapons development experience or expertise. Instead, engagements focused on the expanding global scientific community while addressing the dual use challenge, that the tools of modern biology could be misused or exploited for harmful ends, including for the development of WMD.
To confront this reality, the Biosecurity Engagement Program took a new approach to enhancing health security objectives and building public health capacity that serves as a good basis for our expanded focus on shoring up global health systems. Of critical importance, this new method of biological engagement is rooted in a notion of partnership and close alignment with partner government priorities. Cooperation is driven by the recognition that U. S. Government bioengagement efforts address health security objectives that are also priorities to partner countries.
This new model provides opportunities to forge close partnerships with foreign governments that strengthen the resilience of broad, international nonproliferation frameworks and simultaneously increase partner compliance with the Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention, United Nations Security Resolution 1540, the World Health Organization International Health Regulations, and international guidelines of the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO).
The U.S. Government must continue to adapt to address the full spectrum of natural, accidental, or intentional biological threats. The Obama Administration’s clearly recognizes the critical role that global health security plays in our national security, and that successful threat mitigation demands a whole-of-government approach. This includes not only traditional elements like the State Department and Department of Defense, but also new partners within the Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Agency for International Development, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All have equities in improving global health security are working toward the same goal of strengthening human and animal health systems around the world.
Broadly, our mission is to support biological scientists by providing assistance to improve laboratory biosecurity, biosafety, pathogen surveillance, and infectious disease detection and control. In every country in which we are supporting efforts, the goal is to create a sustainable culture of laboratory biorisk management and infectious disease surveillance which will is equipped with the capacity to prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats.
In addition to our robust bilateral cooperation, we also recognize the advantages of working through multilateral fora to bring together neighboring countries to discuss global health security issues. Since 2009, the Philippine Government has hosted a series of workshops under the ASEAN Regional Forum to promote regional awareness on issues related to bioterrorism and global health. These workshops have been important venues for sharing national experiences and distilling best practices for national biorisk management systems. The next workshop, which will focus on infectious disease detection and surveillance, is scheduled for September. Additionally, the U.S. Government has been exploring ways to further deepen our partnerships on health issues with countries in Southeast Asia through the Lower Mekong Initiative and ASEAN.
As many of you are aware, we are also preparing for the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference – commonly called the BWC RevCon – to be held in Geneva this December. During this five-year review, the 164 Parties will review the direction of their work and recommend future steps. At the RevCon, the U.S. Government will encourage a greater emphasis on capacity building at the interface of health and security while promoting efforts to prevent bioterrorism and urging countries to uphold their BWC obligations.
The U.S. Government respectfully thanks the Malaysian Ministry of Defense for hosting this important biological threat reduction Congress. The event has brought together a diverse and world-class group of participants including government officials, policymakers, and subject matter experts from across the globe. Success in this endeavor demands a multidisciplinary global effort including public health, veterinary medicine, science and technology, security, law enforcement, and policy professionals. All must work collaboratively across diverse disciplines to ensure a safer, more secure, and healthier world. We should use this opportunity to deliberate on our shared interests and concerns, exchange information and experiences, and make recommendations for best practices in biorisk management and disease surveillance. We trust this event will lead to follow-on activities and that all participants can identify mutually held priorities and areas of collaboration to achieve global health objectives.
Finally, it is important to note that this Congress is not an endpoint, but rather one instance on a continuum of continuing regional and global cooperation. It is imperative that we continue to support biological threat reduction efforts to ensure that advances in the biological sciences benefit the health and prosperity of our communities, our countries and our region while also keeping them safe and secure. For this to happen, we rely on the commitment and dedication of the individuals like you, whom are drawn from a variety of disciplines. It is my hope that this meeting will catalyze even deeper global collaboration that will lead to a continued dialogue and increased effort to implement best practices.
In closing, I would like to thank you all for your leadership in tackling such an important set of issues and, more importantly, encourage each of you to become a champion for biosafety, biosecurity and biodefense in your home countries and throughout the world. Thank you.