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Diplomacy in Action

Global Threats, Collaborative Solutions

Thomas Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation
American Society for Microbiology, Biodefense and Emerging Diseases Research Meeting
Washington, DC
February 27, 2012


The Threat and Response Spectrum

Thank you for inviting me to provide an overview of how we in the government and our many partners are working together to prevent the spread and use of biological weapons.

Your title for this session is a good one. First, because these really are global threats: the materials, equipment, and knowledge needed to make at least crude biological weapons is, increasingly, available worldwide; a range of entities around the world, from governments to terrorist organizations to individuals, have demonstrated interest in doing so; and the consequences of an attack with a contagious pathogen could, indeed, be global. And secondly, because we increasingly focus on collaborative tools and approaches to address these threats, using cooperative engagement programs, international agreements, and diplomacy to increase the security of both the United States and the international community.

I run a bureau in the State Department that focuses on nonproliferation. Traditionally, our focus has been on hard security issues, and the use of a range of tools, from sanctions and export controls to UN Security Council Resolutions and negotiations, to prevent governments from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. In the last decade or so, that focus has changed, particularly with respect to the life sciences and biological weapons.

Don’t get me wrong – we still use all those tools, and they play an important role in preventing proliferation. But the nature of the problem is changing, and we’ve had to adapt. As dual-use capabilities spread and non-state actors seek ever-growing destructive potential, we’ve had to adopt a wider range of tools, and work much more closely with colleagues in the public health, law enforcement and life sciences communities. Raising awareness, building capacity, and influencing attitudes and intentions—both within governments and at the level of laboratories and individual scientists—is increasingly central to our work.

New Thinking

These changes are at the heart of President Obama’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, which focuses on preventing the misuse of the life sciences while recognizing and supporting their transformative, positive contributions. The Strategy seeks to reduce biological threats by: improving access to the life sciences to combat infectious disease globally; establishing and reinforcing norms against misuse; and identifying, influencing, inhibiting, and where necessary, interdicting those that seek to misuse biology.

Now, these goals go beyond traditional ways of thinking about nonproliferation and require close collaboration with other sectors of government and civil society. When you hear catchphrases like “whole-of-government” and “global health security,” this what it boils down to. The traditional national security players, the State and Defense Departments, working in concert with Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Homeland Security, the FBI, USAID, and a wide range of international and non-governmental partners to address problems that are of shared concern.

This means working in a variety of ways to reduce the risk of biological weapons development and use, but it also means working to strengthen capabilities to detect, investigate, and respond to infectious disease outbreaks anywhere in the world – whether deliberate, accidental, or natural in origin. Strengthening these capabilities is equally critical for detection and preparedness for potential acts of bioterrorism. It’s important to remember that deliberate attacks are not always immediately identifiable as such. When anthrax spores come to you in an envelope with a note, as happened in 2001, it’s pretty clearly not a natural event – but when the Rajneeshees sprayed Salmonella on salad bars in Oregon in 1984, it wasn’t recognized at the time as an attack.

Cooperation is the Bottom Line

Let me lay out for you in more detail the particular efforts we are undertaking in my Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the State Department, --efforts which underpin this global approach to countering biological threats. We strongly believe in the benefits of direct, hands-on engagement with the world’s biological scientists.

Our “Biosecurity Engagement Program” (BEP) had its origins in the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. The goal was to prevent the Former Soviet Union’s biological weapons and related scientific expertise from falling into the hands of rogue nations or terrorist groups. Today, though, we have a wider agenda. We were engaged in forty-seven countries last year, with a budget of $38.4 million: we promote sustainable laboratory biorisk management and infectious disease surveillance. We listen carefully to our partners’ priorities and work with them to promote sustainable health security in areas that are of mutual benefit. BEP also promotes interaction between local experts and their international counterparts to strengthen a global culture of responsible science. In addition, we work to strengthen legal and oversight frameworks around the world, partnering with VERTIC, an NGO that provides legal review and assistance in drafting civil and criminal legislation to implement the BWC and other legally binding international obligations.

We also work through a variety of multilateral organizations and fora: The G8 Global Partnership provides an important means of coordinating international threat reduction and engagement efforts; the ASEAN Regional Forum has been critical as a venue for focused discussion and outreach in the Asia-Pacific region; and we collaborate with a range of international organizations including the World Health Organization and the World Organization for Animal Health. Last year, the U.S. Government and the WHO signed a Memorandum of Understanding creating a framework for collaboration in line with the principles set out in the International Health Regulations. This will facilitate support from U.S. programs, including BEP, for WHO efforts. This year’s first meeting of the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction not only included the 24 member states, but also these key international organizations. Again, the security mission and the public health mission are not identical, but in this area they can and should be mutually reinforcing. There is a shared commitment to strengthen cooperation to ensure that the international community effectively manages global and regional public health risks.

Overlay of International Efforts

The International Health Regulations established in 2005 are legally binding on the 194 WHO Member States. They provide a construct for coordinating the management of actions in the event of a public health emergency of international concern. They also improve the capacity of all countries to detect, assess, notify, and respond to public health threats. Their aim is to help the international community prevent and respond to acute public health risks that have the potential to cross borders and threaten people worldwide.

By June 2012, countries are required to have established the IHR core capacities related to national infrastructure such as laboratories capable of sustained disease outbreak response, appropriately trained public health workers, and national and international legal mechanisms that allow a country to accept international assistance. The CTR programs are supporting countries in meeting this June milestone, as President Obama called for in his speech before the UN General Assembly last September. And for those countries who will not core capacities in place by the deadline, and we know there will be several, we have already begun supporting WHO efforts to identify those countries, encourage them to submit extension requests and to assess where gaps are present, so that global efforts, such as those supported by the Global Partnership and our CTR program, can focus their funding. Beginning in 2003, BWC States Parties have conducted an innovative program of information sharing and exchange on topics relevant to the Convention, which has come to be known as the “intersessional process.” The objective of the intersessional process has been to “develop common understandings and promote effective action” on such topics. The intersessional process has been an unequivocal success. Elements of civil society and the scientific community, as well as private industry have increasingly become partners in efforts to support the Convention’s goals.

Dialogue in Geneva has generated heightened awareness, convergence of views, and substantial activity at the national and regional levels in areas ranging from biosafety and pathogen security, to the development of implementing legislation, to cooperation in disease surveillance and response. In short, the intersessional process has facilitated cooperation and collaboration by experts from many different sectors in many different countries in our shared goal of most efficiently and effectively addressing issues that lie at the intersection of science, security, health, and law enforcement.

Our approach to the BWC reflects the same issues and approaches I described earlier – the evolution from a traditional arms control focus on state-level programs to a much broader, more nuanced approach to a changing threat. Don’t get me wrong. We still worry about state programs and finding ways to convince countries to abide by their commitments. But we also bring together a wider range of stakeholders to address a wider range of issues:

  • We’ve used the BWC as a forum to promote capacity building for international disease surveillance and to discuss the challenges of international assistance and response, in ways that complement and reinforce the work of the World Health Organization.
  • We’ve used it as a forum to discuss issues of legislation, regulation, and enforcement - from the importance of addressing conspiracy and other “inchoate” crimes that let you make an arrest before something happens to agent control lists and safety and security standards.
  • And we’ve used it to discuss dual-use issues and the important role for scientific associations, research institutions, and individual researchers. These efforts have driven a constructive dialogue about responsible conduct in the life sciences and the role of security concerns, and have facilitated progress in incorporating such issues into science education. American industry and scientists have been leaders in these areas and have played a critical role in shaping international discussion.

The Administration is pleased with the outcome of the 2011 Review Conference, which set out a program of work for the next five years that builds on these past efforts and focuses work on three important topics advanced by the United States:

  • Strengthening national implementation measures – which are critical not only for traditional nonproliferation, but also to combat the threat of bioterrorism and to promote public health;
  • Science and technology, including identifying and understanding new developments, and developing steps to guard against misuse of science; and
  • International cooperation and assistance, particularly in combating and responding to outbreaks of infectious disease.

The “Dual-Use Dilemma”

Increasingly, managing the threat of biological weapons is part of a broader question of how best to govern a powerful and increasingly widespread set of technologies. Capabilities like gene sequencing and DNA synthesis are here to stay, and as the costs go down, will be applied more and more widely. More and more knowledge about how organisms function at the cellular and even the molecular level will be gained, and our understanding of the mechanisms of disease will continue to grow. These technologies hold enormous promise not only for medicine, but also in fields ranging from agriculture to manufacturing to energy. But increased understanding and capability can also be used to cause harm.

The recent controversy over H5N1 avian influenza research is an important example, and I understand there will be a panel discussion on it during your meeting. The US Government supported this research to address important public health questions– but at the same time, certain findings give rise to genuine concerns about safety and security that need to be carefully considered. Those concerns, in this case, led the National Scientific Advisory Board on Biosecurity to recommend that two articles based on this research should not be published in full.

There’s been quite a lot of discussion of this in the media, and some of it’s pretty hyperbolic. Let’s be clear what we’re not talking about: We’re not talking about an assault on academic freedom or the imposition of broad government controls over science. We’re talking about risks posed by a small subset of life sciences research: both concerns about the safe and secure conduct of research, which grow as the number of facilities and individuals performing such work increase, and concerns about wide dissemination of certain findings. The prospect that a small group with sufficient technical knowledge could pervert and misuse important scientific advances is something I have to grapple with every day.

We don’t have all the answers – but we do have an obligation to consider how to minimize the risk of such misuse. Members of the scientific community may disagree with our conclusions. You may even disagree that we have sufficient technical understanding and expertise to make such judgments—although we have worked hard to gain insight and advice from the scientific community. That’s certainly your right. But we would be failing our responsibilities if we did not make the attempt to understand and address these risks.

I also think about the reactions of the public and the Congress if we fail to address these issues responsibly. If we don’t handle this issue responsibly – in fact, if we aren’t perceived to have done so, which is something rather different – then others may feel a responsibility to take corrective action. So I think it’s important for the scientific, public health, and security communities to work together to find the best solutions to problems like this one.

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