Battling Biothreats: A Workshop Sheds Light on Health Security Issues


From anthrax to Zika, there's a lot of diversity in the spectrum of biological threats we face daily.

The spectrum of biological threats is often much wider than many realize. From the current Ebola virus disease outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to CRISPR-designed babies, there are a lot of biological issues that trickle over into health care and public health. This week, I attended the Summer Workshop on Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika, where conversations ranged from protecting the bioeconomy to vaccine development. Here are the key takeaways:

First, it’s a startling truth, but biological threats aren’t just black and white, but a vast spectrum of gray. We no longer live in a world where it’s just pandemics and bioterrorism, but also conversations surrounding dual-use research of concern (DURC), gene drive worries with CRISPR-modified mosquitoes, pandemic response, vaccine development, and so much more. FBI Supervisory Special Agent Edward You discussed concerns of garage biohacking and how the US government has policies on oversight for life sciences DURC. Furthermore, You discussed synthetic biology and how the price for DNA synthesis kits (ie, biohacking kits) have dramatically dropped over the years.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring and illuminating aspects of the workshop was the representation of women within the field of biodefense, health security, and public health. Beth Cameron, PhD, vice president for global biological policy and programs at Nuclear Threat Initiative, spoke on global health security policy and the challenges of engaging busy policy-makers and politicians in the threat of infectious diseases, and Kendall Hoyt, PhD, assistant professor at the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, broke down the challenges of vaccine development and the role of war and outbreaks in the roll-out of such medical countermeasures.

Lastly, Nancy Connell, PhD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, broke down the problem-based explorations of biothreat research, discussing her experiences as a scientist working in a BSL 3 and on select agents. Overall, it was inspiring to have such a diverse and dynamic group of women from the top of the biodefense/biosecurity world discussing their experiences and the innate challenges of reducing risk in the world of infectious diseases.

Lastly, biosecurity guru and director of the workshop, Gregory Koblentz, PhD, associate professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government and director of the Biodefense Graduate Program at George Mason University, discussed the implications of the CRISPR-modified babies from Chinese scientists, biosecurity in the age of genome editing, and the harsh implications of the horsepox synthesis.

In the midst of these conversations regarding science and oversight, it also became quite apparent the diverse group of people within the workshop. From universities to the Department of Defense, biotech companies, hospitals, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency, Future of Humanity Institute, and Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control, the diversity of the people in the workshop made each topic that much more engaging and, frankly, informative. I spoke to Koblentz about the workshop and how it’s difficult to even fit these issues into 3.5 days and he noted, “From the role of armed conflict in preventing an effective response to the Ebola outbreak in DRC to the development of medical countermeasures for biodefense to dual-use research with pox viruses, we are seeing the unprecedented convergence of medical and public health challenges and national security concerns. Threats to health security are too complex and diverse for any one agency or organization to tackle on their own. This workshop provides a forum for members of the medical, public health, and security communities to learn more about these risks and how to work together to manage these risks.”

Biological threats come in all shapes and sizes and although many of us see them only as the potential pandemic or bioterrorism incident, the truth is that they’re much broader and diverse. Health care workers, public health, and clinicians alike should have an awareness of what the current biological threats are and the challenges for improving global health security.

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