Biosecurity and national security Contents

6Planning for unexpected futures

Looking ahead to future biological risks

121.Our inquiry examined the covid-19 pandemic as a test case for wider issues of biosecurity. In that context, our conclusions and recommendations above have addressed those broader generic biosecurity issues—the risk assessment process to guide preparedness, the levels of advance planning for core capabilities, frontline resilience, and the national security machinery that should hold the whole system together. Other select committees have examined, and continue to examine, aspects of the ongoing management of the current pandemic.

122.Enduring the covid-19 pandemic does not make other biological risks any less likely to occur. Contributors to our inquiry warned against ‘fighting the last battle’ or focusing on pandemic preparedness while neglecting other biological risks.266 The drivers of the risks that helped to produce covid-19 remain in place, and in many respects are increasing. In relation to naturally occurring disease outbreaks, the 2018 Biological Security Strategy identified globalisation—international trade, travel and urbanisation—as a key factor.267 It also cited long-term climate change, interrupted global immunisation programmes for vaccine-preventable diseases, and the use of pesticides. It warned that the risk of antimicrobial resistance may increase without national and international actions to tackle it,268 which one witness described as a “slower burn risk” that could radically transform routine healthcare.269

123.The Government judges that deliberate attacks involving biological weapons are a less significant risk than naturally occurring disease outbreaks,270 and many contributors to our inquiry agreed.271 One highlighted the difficulty of securing the knowledge and/or access to produce biological weapons.272 However, the threshold for accessing harmful biological substances may change in future. The Biological Security Strategy highlighted the ‘democratisation of scientific knowledge and technology’ and an expansion of biological sciences sectors in more countries.273 There are now more than 50 high containment (‘Bio Safety Level 4’) laboratories in operation or being built across Asia, Africa, Europe, Russia and the United States—dealing with the highest-risk biological substances.274 Such facilities raise issues of laboratory safety and security.275 Technological advances in the life sciences sector provide a means to more effectively deal with infectious diseases—indeed, some vaccines for covid-19 made use of such new knowledge—but also raise risks themselves. As acknowledged in the Biological Security Strategy, these trends increase the feasibility of non-state actors developing the expertise and materials for biological weapons.276 The School of International Futures argued that “technology plays a critical role both as a risk-multiplier and resilience-builder (of diffused local responses as well as international collaboration)”, warning that the “capability to deeply imagine the scale and consequences of these changes is severely limited within government as a whole”.277 Many contributors278 warned of the importance of the threat in future posed by ‘dual-use’ research279 and the possible misuse of emerging technologies280 in the life sciences sector. There are also weaknesses in the inspection and verification regime of the Biological Weapons Convention, which might otherwise reduce these risks.281

124.Our witnesses and contributors largely agreed with the drivers of biological risks in the Biological Security Strategy, as well as the main biological risks themselves.282 Some highlighted that the risk from zoonotic disease may require greater attention.283 Particularly relevant in the context of covid-19, the Strategy recognised that urbanisation and the proximity of humans and animals provide a vector for zoonotic diseases.284 It underlined that human health cannot be separated from the health of plants and animals, highlighting that 60% of all human diseases and 75% of all new and emerging infectious diseases are initially zoonotic in origin.285 Sir Patrick Vallance told us that the combined risk from zoonotic diseases may be equal to that from pandemic flu;286 Professor Simpson warned that these pose a “particular threat at the moment”.287 Dr Outhwaite believed that the control and management of zoonotic infections had not received enough attention internationally and that the UK’s ‘One Health’288 approach needed to be stronger.289 Others underlined the importance of preventing the emergence of these types of diseases,290 as well as strengthening their surveillance.291 Beyond zoonotic infections, some warned of public health risks from disrupted immunisation programmes in the UK.292

125.Contributors suggested that the covid-19 pandemic itself may have affected the likelihood and potential impact of biosecurity risks. Some believed that the pandemic could heighten our vulnerability to bio-terrorism, due to the “preparedness gaps exposed” in the UK during the covid-19 pandemic.293 Both the UN Secretary-General294 and the Council of Europe295 argued that the pandemic may embolden terrorist organisations to undertake bioterrorism. The UCL DAWES Centre for Future Crime and UCL Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering argued that some state actors and criminals might use the pandemic to undertake malicious activities, for example targeting valuable health data linked to vaccine development.296 Interpol recently stated that organised crime syndicates viewed covid-19 vaccines as “liquid gold” and would try to infiltrate supply chains and steal stocks.297 The National Cyber Security Centre warned about cyber-criminals offering false access to coronavirus vaccines. As recently as 9 December, the European Medicines Agency reported a cyber-attack and hack of vaccine documents.298

126.There is a further risk that even those risks which are currently identified and articulated could materialise at the same time, perhaps a combination of threats and natural hazards. This concern is heightened due to the weaknesses in the national security oversight system we discussed in Chapter 5, and because of the continuing uncertainty about changes in this area that may result from the Government’s still-incomplete Integrated Review. Penny Mordaunt well appreciated that multi-risk possibility:

It is very rare that you are faced with a single-issue scenario. I would like our exercises to be much more complicated and to throw in issues that are perhaps entirely unrelated. What happens if we have a cyber attack and your main data systems go down? What are you going to do? There will be concurrent threats, and that is where you get into really building resilience and understanding what could happen. There are malicious actors out there who will try to take advantage when we are facing natural disasters, so we ought to be rehearsing both of those things together. Cygnus just did not do that.299

127.The Government foresees that the new National Institute for Health Protection will subsume the ‘Joint Biosecurity Centre’,300 whose role is to analyse outbreaks of covid-19 and to advise on alert levels. The JBC will have expertise on public health and epidemiology, but not necessarily the full spectrum of biological risks to the UK’s security.301

128.The risks identified in the Biological Security Strategy are rapidly evolving and are not restricted to pandemics alone. New risks are emerging, and the covid-19 pandemic has exposed countries’ vulnerabilities. It will be critical to ensure that the scientific expertise underpinning the National Security Risk Assessment process (paragraph 12) keeps pace with these rapid developments. There is also a need for greater transparency around the level of uncertainty surrounding estimated impacts and planning assumptions.

129.The Government should establish a dedicated national centre for biosecurity, a new cross-government body to serve as a centre of expertise on the full spectrum of interlocked biological risks facing the UK. The Centre should:

a)establish an evidence base for policy decisions in crucial areas, including (but not limited to): disease surveillance mechanisms, especially zoonotic infections; antimicrobial resistance; biosafety standards in the life sciences sector; inter-agency working in support of a ‘One Health’ approach, and educational outreach methods to overcome vaccine hesitancy;

b)contribute directly to the National Security Risk Assessment process and assess the risks and opportunities of new developments, such as emerging life sciences technologies; and

c)operate secondments with, for example, the new National Institute for Health Protection (see paragraph 83), relevant Government departments, veterinary associations, academia and industry.

130.The Government should renew and refresh a Biological Security Strategy periodically (at least every five years) to take into account the lessons of biological emergencies (including covid-19), the results of testing exercises (see paragraph 117) and an ever-changing risk-landscape. It should consider whether further declassified information could be released on the methodologies for assessing the impact and likelihood of natural hazards, to inspire greater public confidence and debate.

The global connection

131.The Government has long recognised the interconnectedness between domestic and international biological security, and the benefits of promoting global health.302 In 2018, the Biological Security Strategy warned that disease outbreaks abroad can rapidly affect the UK and UK interests, both directly and indirectly “through the loss of regional stability” in other parts of the world.303 It noted that building health system capacity abroad via development funding “also reduces the risk of diseases and drug resistance spreading or reaching the UK by tackling these issues at source”.304

132.In our inquiry, the Government highlighted the cross-border risks posed by the spread of infectious diseases.305 Lord Sedwill called pandemics a “global issue with clearly very severe domestic health, economic and social consequences”.306 In the context of the covid-19 pandemic, the Government saw strengthening health systems in vulnerable countries not only as a “moral responsibility” but also a measure to protect people in the UK from a second wave of the disease.307 In 2018, the health sector received 14% of the UK’s bilateral Official Development Assistance (ODA) funding, making it the second highest funded sector.308 The Strategic Defence & Security Review in 2015 singled out two areas of global risk which threaten stability overseas and the UK’s long-term security, on which the Government claimed to be leading international work: climate change and health security.309

133.The Biological Security Strategy lists the international organisation with whom the UK collaborates on biosecurity issues, including the World Health Organisation. The Government expressed its support for the WHO in promoting health security at the global level.310 In September, the Prime Minister announced up to £571 million in funding for Covax, the global vaccine-sharing initiative.311 In the context of a now combined Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the Government recently emphasised the integrated nature of its development and diplomatic work—for instance, the joining of vaccine research efforts in the UK with the Government’s funding activities to promote equitable vaccine access for the most vulnerable countries.312

134.Some contributors to our inquiry spoke positively about the UK’s actions to promote global health security, including its funding for the WHO and international vaccine development.313 Nevertheless, the Government reduced the ODA budget (which is typically set at 0.7% of Gross National Income) for the remainder of 2020–21 in July314 to reflect the covid-driven fall in the size of the economy, and in the November Spending Review it temporarily suspended the commitment to ODA spending of 0.7% of Gross National Income for 2021–22.

135.The Biological Security Strategy correctly recognised that biological risks are not constrained by international borders. The Government has done much to promote global health security. Actions to strengthen healthcare systems abroad have a dual benefit; not just promoting health but also contributing to effective disease control and the UK’s national security. Similarly, multilateral actions on the environmental agenda make biological risks less likely to materialise, as they tackle some of the underlying drivers—such as climate change, deforestation and habitat destruction.

136.The Government should continue to take a leading international role in the global health security and environmental agenda, taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the UK’s presidency of the G7 and the climate change conference in Glasgow next year.

137.It should also ensure that the planned reduction in ODA funding does not weaken aid programmes which work to strengthen health systems abroad. Such spending is clearly in the UK’s interests, including its biosecurity interests.

266 Professor John Simpson, Q57; School of International Futures (BNS0022); Security Lancaster (BNS0016); Paul Schulte (BNS0032)

267 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 11

268 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 11

269 Clara Swinson, Q33

270 These types of attacks are a Tier-2 security risk in the 2015 National Security Risk Assessment. See Her Majesty’s Government, The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom (November 2015), p 87

271 Sir Patrick Vallance, Q33; Professor Simpson, Q33

272 Dr Jennifer Cole, Qq6,9

273 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 12

274 Dr Filippa Lentzos and Professor Michael S. Goodman (BNS0025)

275 Professor Colin McInnes, Q17

276 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), pp 11–12

277 School of International Futures (BNS0022)

278 UCL DAWES Centre for Future Crime and UCL Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering (BNS0003); Dr Filippa Lentzos and Professor Michael S. Goodman (BNS0025); Emergent BioSolutions (BNS0007); Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (BNS0012); Sir Patrick Vallance, Q33; Dr Beyza Unal and Mr Ben Wakefield (BNS0009); Dr Tatyana Novossiolova and Professor Malcolm Dando (BNS0029). See also written evidence received by Joint Committee for Biosecurity and human health inquiry, Session 2017–19, Dr Cassidy Nelson et al (BHH0010); Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College (BioRISC), Cambridge (BHH0005)

279 Dual-use research covers life sciences research that, based on current understanding, can be reasonably anticipated to provide knowledge, information, products and technologies that could be directly misapplied to pose a significant threat with broad potential consequences to public health and safety, agricultural crops and other plants, animals, the environment, material or national security. Definition taken from a joint Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Medical Research Council (MRC) and Wellcome Trust policy statement. See Wellcome Trust, ‘Managing risks of research misuse’, accessed 14 December 2020.

280 For example, gene editing and ‘synthetic biology’. The latter is an area of research that seeks to create new biological components (such as enzymes) or re-engineer organisms to have new abilities.

281 Dr Patricia Lewis, Q6.

282 For example, Sir Patrick Vallance, Q33; Clara Swinson, Q33; Professor John Simpson, Q33; Professor Sophie Harman, Q17; Professor Frederic Bouder, Q17; Professor Colin McInnes, Q17; School of International Futures (BNS0022).

283 “A zoonosis is any disease or infection that is naturally transmissible from vertebrate animals to humans.” WHO, ‘Zoonoses’, accessed 14 December 2020.

284 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 10

285 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 9.

286 Sir Patrick Vallance, Q33

287 Professor John Simpson, Q33

288 The WHO defines ‘One Health’ as “an approach to designing and implementing programmes, policies, legislation and research in which multiple sectors communicate and work together to achieve better public health outcomes. The areas of work in which a One Health approach is particularly relevant include food safety, the control of zoonoses (diseases that can spread between animals and humans, such as flu, rabies and Rift Valley Fever), and combatting antibiotic resistance (when bacteria change after being exposed to antibiotics and become more difficult to treat).” WHO, ‘One Health’ (21 September 2017).

289 Dr Opi Outhwaite (BNS0030)

290 Dr Patricia Lewis, Q5; Oral evidence taken before the Lords International Relations and Defence Committee on 17 July 2020, Q14 [Professor Devi Sridhar]

291 British Society for Immunology (BNS0006); Dr Opi Outhwaite (BNS0030)

292 The Strategy focuses on disruptions to immunisation programmes, mainly considering those caused by conflict or economic collapse. It is unclear if these disruptions are considered in a domestic context too. Security Lancaster (BNS0016) and AnotherDay (BNS0027) both warn of risks caused by vaccine hesitancy. See also The UK has lost its World Health Organisation ‘measles-free’ status, New Scientist, 19 August 2019.

293 Emergent BioSolutions (BNS0007) para 5; Hamish de Bretton-Gordon (BNS0012)

296 UCL DAWES Centre for Future Crime and UCL Advanced Centre for Biochemical Engineering (BNS0003); also Paul Schulte (BNS0032) and written evidence received by Joint Committee for Biosecurity and human health inquiry, Session 2017–19, Dr Cassidy Nelson et al (BHH0010); Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College (BioRISC), Cambridge (BHH0005)

298 Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine docs hacked from European Medicines Agency, BBC News, 9 December 2020; Dr Cassidy Nelson et al (BHH0010); Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s College (BioRISC), Cambridge (BHH0005

299 Penny Mordaunt, Q70

301 Dr Opi Outhwaite (BNS0030)

303 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 10

304 Her Majesty’s Government, Biological security strategy (July 2018), p 13

305 Her Majesty’s Government (BNS0013)

306 Lord Sedwill, Q5

307 HL Deb, 3 September 2020, col 520

308 The top sector to receive bilateral ODA support was ‘multisector’. Bilateral ODA is money spent on specific countries, regions or programmes (as opposed to contributions to multilaterals). DFID, Statistics on International Development. Final UK Aid Spend 2018 (2019), p 3

309 Her Majesty’s Government, The National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom (November 2015), paras 5.130, 5.135. ‘Global public health security’ covers “activities required, both proactive and reactive, to minimize the danger and impact of acute public health events that endanger people’s health across geographical regions and international boundaries”, according to the World Health Organisation. See World Health Organisation, ‘Health Security’, accessed 14 December 2020.

310 Her Majesty’s Government (BNS0013)

312 HL Deb, 3 September 2020, col 520

313 For instance, Professor Harman (BNS0011) paras 1.4–1.6; Helen Ramscar (BNS0020) para 1.1.

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