Op-Ed – With the Changing Biological threat…smart international engagement policy would lower cost and increase national security.

David R. Franz, DVM, Ph.D.
Former Commander
US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases

“There is no technical solution…”: In 1998, after we understood the enormity of the Soviet offensive program and the potential of the Iraqi one to disrupt, Nobel Laureate Joshua Lederberg said, “There is no technical solution to this problem of biological warfare. It needs an ethical, human and moral solution, if it’s going to happen at all….” Then he paused and said, “But would an ethical or moral solution appeal to a sociopath?” The early days of the biological Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) program were similar to the nuclear and missile programs. Cutting up an anthrax production fermenter the size of a Kansas farm silo is not a lot different than eliminating a Soviet silo constructed to launch an ICBM. But when the anthrax fermenter is relegated to the scrap heap and its operator is a pensioner, how do we reduce the likelihood that the next generation of molecular biologists and virologists, with much better tools and knowledge, continue to work for “the good” of their people, their country and for a global community?

Simple metrics for sustainable engagement would change the way we think…and act: “It’s possible to succeed in accomplishing what we set out to measure and still fail in our overall objective.” Furthermore, the most important metrics for international engagement of any kind are often difficult or impossible to measure. However, if we go forward with a set of metrics [or call them goals] of success firmly in mind—even unmeasurable ones—the likelihood of a successful and sustainable national security outcome is greatly enhanced.

1) Are we using taxpayer dollars efficiently? (Yes; our less fortunate friends are watching this.)
2) Are our engagement activities really enhancing our partners’ health and human security?
3) Are we teaming effectively with our partners; have they “bought in” to the partnership?
4) Will our work result in sustainable capabilities and positive long-term relationships?
5) Is there evidence of open communication and even trust between us?

We can accomplish these goals through collaborative partnerships with credible people, when technical knowledge is the currency and honesty, integrity and even a sense of humor are the vehicle. We must therefore, send credible, knowledgeable experts to meet with their equals.

Our National Experience at the end of the Cold War: When the Soviet Union fell and the Trilateral Agreement to assure the dismantlement of their offensive biological warfare infrastructure collapsed, the visionary Nunn-Lugar CTR program engaged former weapons labs and scientists. Its additional purpose was to reduce the likelihood that their technologies and knowledge would proliferate to other countries. Engagement was focused on securing facilities, neutralizing pathogen production capabilities and redirection of biological scientists to peaceful pursuits. The labs and the scientists desperately needed financial help so they “cooperated.”

Seeking to understand the natural risks and intentional threats: Today, fifteen million humans die of communicable and contagious disease globally each year. Microbes move constantly and quickly with their human and animal hosts. An individual exposed to a virus in Beijing, Bangkok or Buenos Aires can be in Boston before symptoms of disease are manifest. Microbes don’t respect political borders and what happens in “your country” can be in “my country” tomorrow. The same is true of illicit development and transport of biological weapons. To counter this threat, we attempt to understand the “intent” of nation states and the “capabilities” of sub-state groups. Neither is easy in biology. There are no portals through which we can have them pass to identify a virus-containing vial, canister or human. And we can’t “secure” all the microbes, the instrumentation, the knowledge or the scientists.

Exporting the U.S. biosecurity model: Worried about the insider threat at home, we have imposed severe regulatory and security burdens on our own scientists in the form of “select agent rules” and “biological surety” regulation. These include background checks, psychological testing, “guns, gates and guards” around laboratories and agent accountability schemes akin to those used in our nuclear weapons labs. Our own scientists have no choice but to comply or choose a career outside the affected life-sciences enterprise. However, we are also exporting our security model to some countries where our list of “Especially Dangerous Pathogens” (EDP) pales in the harsh reality of their populations’ disease burdens from HIV-AIDS, drug-resistant TB, malaria and parasitism. Desperate for public health resources, they cooperate with us as we consolidate and secure their labs and ask them to develop standards, regulations and response plans aligned with our priorities for our favorite “threat agents”…the EDP. Much of this technical work was needed and has significantly improved their options regarding laboratory safety and their laboratory’s security profiles, raising the bar for a wouldbe terrorist hoping to obtain a pathogen strain. However, when the contract ends, we just don’t know…unless relationships of respect and trust have been established
in the process.

Health Engagement for National Security: Professor Lederberg was right; technical means [used for nuclear threats] aren’t the solution to this challenge. But how to apply the “ethical and behavioral” fixes he proposed? Focusing together as partners on hard, common human- and animal-health challenges offers several advantages over “leading with security.” Leading with Public Health can make a real difference that is relevant to human health and human security. It brings like-minded people and their technical capabilities together in a non-threatening environment. Most importantly, it almost guarantees improved understanding and even trust between the collaborating partners. Trust between individuals, particularly highly qualified individuals, often leads to communication and even trust between governments. And most importantly, the personal relationships and the open communication that result from real health or science engagement are sustainable at almost no cost even when the official engagement ends.

It’s about people and relationships: Government funding agencies or congress often mandate metrics of engagement, but the right metrics are especially important for the individuals we send to engage. If the measure of success is to “build a containment laboratory and a security system around it,” our contractors go in with a “project” mindset. Just get it done! Such international projects can actually do harm, if the human relationships are not positive…and we have no way of knowing how the upgraded biological facilities will be used after we depart. However, if real scientists and clinicians engage for mutually relevant reasons, the outcome is typically far different, beneficial to our partners and actually enhances our own health security and our national security. While our view of intentional threats, and even natural risks, will never be even close to perfect it could be better; we must be alert to the ever-changing biological world around us. Friends can and do help us…when and where we have them.