Biosecurity in the Time of Ebola

Rose Gottemoeller
Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security 
University of Virginia, Jefferson Literary and Debating Society
Charlottesville, VA
February 13, 2015

As Delivered

Good evening and thank you for the kind introduction. It is great to be down here in Charlottesville. It’s also great to see so many young people here at the start of a three day weekend ready to talk about germs and bugs. Biosecurity is an issue area that will only grow in importance in the coming years, so it is encouraging to see so much interest.

Whether you are talking about anthrax, avian flu, or Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis, we need a global capability to prevent, detect and rapidly respond to biological threats no matter their origin. This is doubly so in a world that is confronting naturally occurring epidemics like Ebola, while guarding against the possibility of bioterror. With this in mind, representatives from around the world braved a Washington, DC snow storm to launch the Global Health Security Agenda exactly one year ago today.

The Global Health Security Agenda (GHSA) is an international effort to accelerate progress toward a world safe and secure from infectious disease threats. GHSA partners include 44 nations, international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Interpol, nongovernmental partners, and private stakeholders.

In particular, the Agenda seeks to elevate efforts to:

  • Prevent the likelihood of outbreaks, whether natural, accidental, or deliberate in origin;
  • Detect outbreaks early to save lives; and
  • Respond to outbreaks effectively using the full range of multisectoral resources

Last February, countries were called upon to make new, concrete commitments to advance national, regional or global capacity to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to biological threats. About a month after the Agenda’s launch, in March 2014, Guinea first reported confirmed Ebola cases. Since that time, the outbreak turned into the largest Ebola epidemic in recorded history, with over 22,000 cases and nearly 9,000 deaths. Beyond Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone – the three most impacted countries – Ebola spread to Mali, Nigeria, Senegal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and of course, our own country.

The Ebola Epidemic underscores the significant security risks that infectious disease outbreaks pose. Ebola’s toll on the social and economic fabric of West Africa is undermining political stability and the progress that this region has made after decades of civil war.

The epidemic’s profound political and economic consequences also threaten political stability and the ability of governments to counter violent extremism from terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Boko Haram. West Africa is now also home to large collections of Ebola samples, and we are putting a high priority on ensuring these collections will not be exploited for malicious purposes.

The outbreak served to underscore the direct link between international security and health capacities– the very capacities the Global Health Security Agenda aims to strengthen. It has also demonstrated the need and value of collaborations between the health, development, and security communities.

President Obama has made it clear that “fighting this epidemic is a national security priority for the United States” and that world leaders needed to increase efforts to counter a wide range of biological threats, “from infections that are resistant to antibiotics to terrorists that seek to develop and use biological weapons.”

As the President stressed, accelerating progress toward global health security will require concerted, multi-disciplinary efforts worldwide including:

  • Establishing all hazards Emergency Operations Centers that can rapidly integrate real-time disease data and into response strategies;
  • Training new cadres of epidemiologists who can quickly detect outbreaks;
  • Broadening early childhood immunization efforts;
  • Strengthening linkages between ministries of health and agriculture; and
  • Bolstering the security of dangerous pathogen collections.

Packages were developed with specific, measurable targets, including advancing national biosecurity and biosafety systems, as well as real-time biosurveillance, in addition to enhancing capacity for modern diagnostics. Such diagnostics minimize the likelihood that disease agents need to be cultured and stored. We also worked to establish emergency operations centers and the necessary workforce to investigate and fight disease outbreaks – before they become epidemics.

For those of you who may have started out wondering why the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security was talking about Ebola, I assume it is clear now. Global health and nonproliferation may seem like distinct missions, but they overlap in important ways, and we can accomplish more by working together. In West Africa and around the world, the Department of State plays a central role in reducing threats from dangerous pathogens.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the Departments of State, Defense, and Energy implemented the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction programs to reduce risks associated with dangerous materials, equipment, and expertise from the Soviet Union’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. During this period, State and Defense developed substantial expertise in training scientific and laboratory personnel in biosafety and biosecurity best practices, securing collections of pathogens such as Ebola and anthrax, and improving disease detection systems. The capabilities we gained then are now helping us to fight the Ebola outbreak. Those same skills are helping us to reduce the likelihood that aspiring bioterrorists get their hands on Ebola samples.

To that end, the Department of State has trained and equipped over 1,200 Liberian police officers, over 2,000 Sierra Leonean police officers, and several hundred Guinean police officers to safely and effectively perform key security-related duties during the crisis.

We also completed a biosecurity assessment of the Malian high containment laboratory that processes Ebola samples, and will soon support this lab in bolstering its security measures. Working closely with our DoD threat reduction colleagues, we are also making sure that other labs in West Africa that store Ebola samples identify vulnerabilities and rapidly implement physical security measures. We put a premium on flexibility and speed so we could rapidly respond to developments in the outbreak. In November, when Mali experienced an unexpected uptick of Ebola cases, we responded to an urgent request to stand up an Emergency Operations Center in Bamako by quickly redirecting funds for this initiative. Within a week of the original request, the center’s equipment was in place – lightning speed by government standards.

At the core of our efforts was a massive coordination campaign. The State Department worked closely with U.S. and West African diplomats on the ground, and our counterparts throughout the government to bring the full range of U.S. resources to bear. Of course, work like this is not free, so it was also important to pool resources with the international community. All told, since President Obama urged nations to contribute to the response, countries from all over the world, private sector stakeholders, international organizations, and multilateral development banks have pledged more than $2 billion to end the epidemic.

There is still work to be done. While overall trends are positive, a modest uptick in cases in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone in late January should serve as a powerful reminder that we must remain vigilant and intensify our efforts. Our fight against this outbreak is not finished until we get to zero cases. While this crisis has been primarily humanitarian in nature, the work we have done can help reinforce nonproliferation norms around the world. These nonproliferation norms tie directly back to another State Department responsibility – the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

The BWC, for those of you who don’t know, is a legally binding treaty that bans the development, stockpiling, acquisition, retention, and production of biological agents and toxins in types and in quantities that have no justification for protective or peaceful purposes. As a note, the use of biological weapons was banned by the 1925 Geneva Protocol. My team at State has led outreach to expand the convention’s membership, and today there are 172 States Parties.

Our primary BWC objective is to work with other Parties to strengthen the Convention as an instrument for combating bioweapons proliferation and terrorism. We continue our push for universal adherence to the BWC, in order to globalize its ban on these weapons.

Every five years, the States Parties meet in Geneva to participate in a Review Conference (RevCon) that is the culmination of the last five years of efforts to strengthen the Convention. The next RevCon will take place in 2016. The United States will seek agreement on measures to improve national implementation of the Convention’s prohibitions on biological weapons and improve coordination of international assistance in the event of outbreaks of infectious disease, whether caused naturally – as in the case of Ebola – or intentionally.

Article VII of the BWC commits its Parties to provide assistance to any other Party “if the (UN) Security Council decides that such Party has been exposed to danger as a result of violation of the Convention.” The problem is that it can be difficult and time consuming to determine whether biological weapons have been used, particularly compared to use of most other types of weapons. This means that much of what needs to be done to fulfill the undertaking of Article VII is also necessary for disease outbreaks that occur naturally. The international community cannot wait to provide the necessary assistance while investigations on the cause of an outbreak are carried out.

And this fact, in turn, means that the work of the BWC in this area is tied closely to international efforts to prepare for any type of public health emergency. Planning to deal with an Article VII scenario can enhance public preparedness, but must also be done with the experience of natural disease outbreaks in mind. We are hoping that lessons learned from the response to the Ebola crisis can help BWC Parties prepare for more effective coordination in the event of future disease outbreaks, regardless of whether such outbreaks are naturally occurring, the result of accidents, or caused by intentional acts. I think one of the biggest lessons learned from the first year of the Global Health Security Agenda is that resolve makes all the difference.

The Agenda was launched on a bitterly cold and snowy day, when roads and offices across Washington were closed. That didn’t keep people from the table. They knew the effort we were starting was too important to delay. We have also witnessed extraordinary resolve and courage in the health workers in West Africa who – in the face of mortal danger – continued to treat the sick. As I said, we are determined to get to zero cases, and long after this epidemic is over, we will need that resolve to meet new challenges wherever and however they arise.

Thank you so much for your attention. I look forward to your questions.