The United Kingdom unveiled a new Biological Security Strategy that emphasizes real-time threat monitoring and data sharing and establishes a dedicated minister to oversee and implement the strategy’s tenets.
The UK’s first Biological Security Strategy was released in 2018, and covered the risks posed by public health crises such as a pandemic, antimicrobial resistance, biological attacks by terrorists or state actors, zoonotic diseases, and the accidental release of pathogens including through dual-use research.
“The UK has faced a number of significant biological outbreaks since the 2018 Strategy was published, including three public health emergencies of international concern (COVID-19, Ebola and Mpox), as well as the ongoing avian influenza outbreak,” the document notes. “The continued increase in AMR is creating a new generation of ‘superbugs’ that cannot be treated with existing medicines, killing thousands of people every year across the UK and millions globally, as well as having a significant economic impact.”
The “renewed vision” laid out in the strategy, presented to Parliament last week by Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, aims to make the UK resilient by 2030 “to a spectrum of biological threats, and a world leader in responsible innovation, making a positive impact on global health, economic and security outcomes.”
Response to biological threats is built on four pillars, according to the strategy: Understanding current and future biological risks, preventing biological risks from emerging if possible or keeping them from becoming a threat, identifying and reporting biological risks when they do emerge “as early and reliably as possible,” and responding to biological risks that have affect UK interests “to lessen their impact and to enable a rapid return to business as usual.”
The urgency of the strategy is fueled by having entered the “Age of Biology,” the document says, in which life sciences and artificial intelligence sectors develop biosecurity innovation and solutions.
“Advances in life sciences and biotechnology promise better and faster cures, more sustainable energy sources, and improved quality of life, but they also bring new risks that must be managed,” the strategy added. “The proliferation of information online, and the growing numbers of skilled researchers able to perform high risk experiments, has blurred the boundaries between research for good and research that could be used to cause harm.”
The strategic framework laid out in the plan includes developing a centralized “pan biothreats decision support package, or Biothreats Radar” to improve information sharing and crisis response, with a redacted version of the threat forecast made publicly available “where possible, to raise awareness and support readiness and contingency planning across the UK.” The strategy builds on the data sharing that became even more critical at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and also supports a global pest alert system. A coordinated communications campaign will be developed “to improve public understanding and awareness of natural, deliberate and accidental biological risks” — using the National Cyber Security Centre’s “cyber aware” campaign as a model.
“Regular tabletop exercises will be conducted within and between departments, across natural, accidental and deliberate threats, to validate plans and prepare teams,” the strategy states. “They will aim to explore the interdependencies between different risks, including cascading and concurrent risks.”
The prevention pillar includes being a global leader in responsible innovation while shaping international norms and standards, keeping bad actors from acquiring or using biological weapons, reducing the spread of infectious diseases and pests as well as drug-resistant infections, and maintaining biological security at borders.
“Our first step is to incorporate a Pre- Departure Health Check (PDHC) into the rollout of the Universal Permission to Travel (UPT) to be available if required in a future health emergency,” the strategy says. “UKHSA will take the leading role nationally on the public health aspects of the UK border and develop a strengthened vision for the future. This will include evaluating and identifying any gaps in the border health system, determining our priority deliverables and developing the capabilities required to better protect the public from cross-border threats to health.”
The detection pillar focuses on development of a National Biosurveillance Network including monitoring of wastewater and air, enhancing capability to “rapidly roll out diagnostics for population use in response to new or existing biological threats,” and strengthening the capability of appropriately-equipped laboratories to conduct forensic examinations on biological threats or incidents.
“As part of the 100 Days Mission, which aims to have safe and effective vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics available within 100 days of an epidemic or pandemic threat being identified, we will support the development of prototype diagnostic libraries against priority pathogens and pests, as well as against a future ‘Disease X’. This requires a combined and concerted effort between governments, industry and international organisations,” the plan continues.
The response pillar includes coordinating international response to a natural outbreak, accidental release or deliberate attack affecting humans, animals, plants and the environment; having a comprehensive set of tested response plans ready; being able to scale up discovery and development of therapeutics and vaccines; and having the “ability to efficiently remediate a scene or area within the UK as soon as possible that has been contaminated by hazardous biological material in a small or medium scale incident.”
A Senior Responsible Officer (SRO) for biological security will be appointed to oversee implementation of the strategy through 2030, and a Biological Security Coordination Unit will be established in the Cabinet Office to support the SRO and a subgroup of Chief Scientific Advisers appointed by the SRO.
A new UK Biological Security Leadership Council will be established “to engage strategically with the Life Sciences and Biotechnology sectors, and develop proportionate and pro-innovation approaches to risk management.”