Discerning Pandemic Origins for a Safer World
As the world becomes increasingly vulnerable to fast-moving infectious diseases, enhancing our ability to determine the origins of potential pandemics is critical to facilitating swift, lifesaving action. While instruments exist to investigate naturally-occurring outbreaks as well as those suspected to be resulting from deliberate biological weapons use, there currently is no mechanism for assessing biological events of unknown origin. The Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) is working with international partners to develop a new global Joint Assessment Mechanism (JAM) to fill this critical gap. Ensuring seamless outbreak origin assessments means global decision makers can move faster and more decisively to minimize the health and economic effects of high-consequence biological events while guarding against future risks.
A Dangerous, Unprepared World
Global travel and trade, urbanization, environmental degradation, and continued state and non-state interest in biological weapons all make biological events more likely. According to the 2021 Global Health Security (GHS) Index–which measures national-level capacities to prevent, detect, and respond to emerging pandemics–no country is adequately prepared for high-consequence biological events. The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed significant gaps in global pandemic preparedness and highlighted shared vulnerabilities to catastrophic biological events. Future public health emergencies–whether natural, intentional, or accidental in origin–could be as devastating or worse.
Spotlight on Asia and the Pacific
Like the rest of the world, the Asia-Pacific region faces escalating pandemic risks. More people live in the region than outside of it; about 36% of humanity resides in China and India alone. Asia’s high population density increases its vulnerability to pandemic-potential outbreaks. East Asia’s population is also aging faster than any other region in the world, which can pose unique challenges for medical outbreak treatment response, as demonstrated by COVID-19.
The Asia-Pacific region is also home to tremendous biotechnology investments and advances. The Chinese government supports bioindustry as one of the seven strategic industries critical to China’s future. India produces approximately 60% of the world’s vaccines. The Government of Japan has formulated a bioeconomy strategy with the aim of developing “the world’s most advanced bioeconomy society by 2030.” Rapid advances in biotechnology hold tremendous potential for a healthier future, but this progress comes with globally heightened risks of human-caused pandemics from accidents or deliberate misuse.
There are approximately 60 maximum-security Biosafety Level 4 laboratories worldwide, and Asia and Australia collectively host 17 of them. Transparency and accountability are critical as more of these facilities proliferate across the globe. Many of these laboratories, which are designed to enable scientists to work with the most dangerous pathogens, are engaged in research to develop medical countermeasures for improved outbreak detection and containment. While much of this work is important and valuable, we must also recognize the risks that human error or infrastructure failure could result in laboratory leaks, and that dangerous biological agents could be stolen or otherwise misused as part of a nefarious act. The source of a resulting outbreak may not be immediately clear, hampering effective response efforts. A mishap at a high-containment lab anywhere in the world could affect populations everywhere; national and global leaders have a moral duty to guard against these risks.
The Joint Assessment Mechanism: Discerning Outbreak Origins for a Safer World
The rapidly evolving biological risk landscape requires that the international community have the capability to rapidly discern outbreak origins to mount a robust response and to guard against future risks. Currently, the United Nations Secretary-General’s Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons (UNSGM) has the authority to investigate allegations of deliberate biological weapons use. The World Health Organization has robust operational capabilities and a strong comparative advantage in assessing naturally-emerging infectious disease outbreaks, and this is also the political comfort zone of its member states. However, there is no existing mechanism to assess events of unknown origin that fall between the scope of these two specific mechanisms.
While the WHO has established the Scientific Advisory Group for the Origins of Novel Pathogens, it is as yet unclear how far the organization is willing or able to go in assessing the origins of human-caused high-consequence biological events. Additionally, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) contains procedures for convening consultative meetings of states-parties or for lodging allegations with the UN Security Council about the development, possession, or use of biological weapons; these complaints could be taken up by the Security Council and investigated. However, in the 47 years since the BWC came into force, no investigation has yet been conducted despite ongoing concerns among BWC states-parties about noncompliance. This inaction calls into question both the utility of and trust in existing procedures.
The proposed JAM would be a UN-based mechanism designed to address cases when it is unclear if an outbreak emerged naturally or was deliberately or accidentally released from a laboratory. Requiring an internationally diverse roster of technical experts to conduct ongoing data analysis and the operational capability to rapidly launch on-site assessments, the JAM would take full advantage of modern bioinformatics, data science, and AI to effectively respond to today’s risk environment. With a mandate to establish all facts surrounding the origin of an unusual outbreak, the JAM’s approach would be transparent, evidence-based, fast-acting, and legitimate in the eyes of the international community.
The JAM can build on existing UN investigative capabilities and bridge the gaps between them. As a forward-looking mechanism, it would not investigate the origins of COVID-19, but it would meet UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ call for greater investment in preparedness capabilities to address future pandemics.
NTI originally recommended establishing the JAM in its 2020 report “Preventing Global Catastrophic Biological Risks,” which was based on a senior-level tabletop exercise hosted in conjunction with the Munich Security Conference. The exercise highlighted gaps in international capabilities to assess pandemic origins, and the concept of the JAM emerged as a means of addressing this gap. It has since been further refined in consultation with experts.
There is considerable support among international stakeholders for establishing the JAM within the office of the UN Secretary-General, as this would provide the necessary authority to activate and deactivate as necessary. This location would also facilitate cooperation with existing UN bodies and mandates in which information, expertise, and resources could be shared. Reliably establishing the facts about an outbreak will greatly bolster the international community’s ability to prevent or respond to the next high-consequence biological threat.
Several open questions remain about how best to build political support for the mechanism, how it would interface with existing UN mechanisms, what its core functions would be, how to incentivize compliance, and how best to leverage the scientific and technological tools at its disposal.
For example, a key challenge lies in securing the cooperation of a country identified as the source of an outbreak when the JAM requests access to conduct on-site assessments. Such cooperation is essential to a credible investigation. Developing greater incentives and stronger global norms for cooperation will therefore be extremely important. Consideration will also need to be given to the issue of transparency, so that information coming from the UN is trustworthy and actionable.
If designed correctly, the JAM could profoundly improve international security. Reliably determining that a pandemic is naturally occurring can quell suspicions about accidental or deliberate origins. If traced to a laboratory accident, a country could be assisted in strengthening its biosafety and biosecurity systems. The mechanism could also deter malicious actors from using biological weapons by making it far more likely that they would get caught.
Creating the JAM and ensuring that it effectively addresses the modern biological risk landscape will require a broad coalition of international support from UN member states. Establishing such a mechanism could reinforce the considerable strengths of the Asia-Pacific region’s health security capacities, including its rapidly-growing biotechnology sector and its outbreak detection capabilities. While no one knows when or where the next high-consequence biological event will occur, having the capacity to establish the facts about an outbreak of unknown origin is critical to ensuring that the world is better prepared.
Image: Briefing by the 1540 Committee (non-proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons) to the United Nations Security Council, New York, 27 November 2013. UN Photo/Ryan Brown.