Published On: April 6, 2021

Imagine a world in which you wake up, brush your teeth and breathe into a magic tube. In a matter of seconds, a sequencer in this tube tells you whether you have any of 300 known pathogens while simultaneously scanning for any unknown viruses as well. If you test positive, you’ll know instantly. And because the equipment is hooked up to your WiFi, it can then feed your results into a public health surveillance system. Such a system will enable contagious diseases to be detected within days – long before they run out of control.

This isn’t science fiction. This is the future of healthcare.

It is also a crucial aspect of our modern day security. Last month, the UK Government announced a New Health Security Agency charged with mitigating infectious diseases and other hazards to health before they materialise. This followed hot on the heels of the Integrated Review in which the government committed to a wholesale review of its approach to biosecurity. Both of these steps are welcome but the devil will be in the detail.

So, what would a better UK approach to biosecurity look like?

First, its focus must extend well beyond naturally occurring pandemics like Covid-19 and address the even more serious threats that keep biosecurity experts up at night such as the threat of biological weapons. Biological weapons pose risks to global security of the same order as nuclear weapons and, yet, deterring them receives substantially less funding.

Encouragingly, the Integrated Review seems to acknowledge this – its definition of biosecurity is broad enough to cover the protection of the UK and our interests from all forms of biological risk. Its strategy must be similarly all-encompassing. We do not know what the next Covid-19 will look like but the chilling fact is that it may be much worse than what we have experienced in the last 12 months. It would be a serious missed opportunity if the only significant policy change following Covid-19 was a better plan to deal with naturally occurring coronaviruses. We cannot simply fight the last war.

Second, the government must develop more effective defences to biological threats. As Covid-19 has demonstrated, none of our current tools to counter new biological threats are both effective and rapidly deployable. Vaccines are effective but not fast. Lockdowns can be implemented quickly but are far less effective. As the Integrated Review acknowledges, we urgently need innovative technologies – like meta-genomic sequencing – to plug this gap. The Review sets out the UK’s ambition to become a global science superpower and boost its pipeline of scientific talent. There is no better way to achieve this objective than by making the UK a world leader in the field of biosecurity.

Third, Global Britain needs to play a leadership role in promoting responsible laboratory safety around the world. This should be front and centre of the UK’s commitment in the Review to bolster international action to address global health risks. We need to show that we have learned from recent mistakes such as the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2007 which was caused when it escaped from a high-security lab. The UK’s Presidency of the G7 this year provides the ideal platform with which to promote a more responsible culture of biotechnology development across the world.

A neat way to achieve all three of these objectives in one would be for the UK to create a new National Centre for Biosecurity. Such a centre would go above and beyond the remit of the new National Institute for Health Protection and would be tasked with safeguarding the UK against all forms of biological threat, regardless of their origin, and showcasing the UK as a leader in this area. The creation of such a centre was first recommended by the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University and has recently been supported by the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy in its report to government.

The Centre would also achieve an important fourth objective. The Integrated Review included a commitment to clarify where decision-making authority for biosecurity sits within the government, and rightly so. It currently straddles a range of different departments. This is neither efficient nor effective and the Centre would provide much-needed clarity and co-ordination.

Just as Covid-19 triggers an immune response in each individual protecting them from reinfection, this pandemic has triggered a social immune response – a public desire to ensure that the tragic events of the next 12 months never happen again and that we are better prepared for whatever biological threat comes next. This social immune response will soon fade. Before it does, it is essential that we seize this opportunity to transform the UK’s approach to biological security across the board and bring the world with the magic tube one step closer.

Andrew Weber was Assistant Secretary of Defense under President Obama, overseeing nuclear, chemical and biological defense programmes.

Piers Millett is a Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, and an adviser to the World Health Organisation.

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