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16 October 2020

Act now to control emerging biological threats, Dr Filippa Lentzos tells United Nations General Assembly

Establishing an international body to monitor and regulate high-risk biological research activities should be a priority, urges Dr Filippa Lentzos at the UN General Assembly First Committee meeting earlier this week.

Filippa Lentzos delivers her statement to the UN virtually
Dr Filippa Lentzos delivers her statement virtually

Globally, there are well over 50 biosafety level (BSL)-4 laboratories, either in operation or under construction, spread throughout Asia, African, Europe, Russia and the US. These high containment labs carry out some of the most dangerous manipulations of pathogens with pandemic potential. While they are built to protect researchers, the public and the environment from harm, lab design cannot overcome human error or poor training. With each experiment comes opportunities for accidental exposures and inadvertent infections or releases.

Moreover, should the intent be there, advances in science and technology, and especially in genomic technologies, are significantly facilitating the development of biological weapons.

Speaking to the UN General Assembly Disarmament and International Security Committee on Tuesday Dr Filippa Lentzos, Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Global Health & Social Medicine, stressed the need for states to reaffirm their commitments to the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

COVID-19 has crystallised the deep and wide impacts of biological threats. The pandemic has also demonstrated the importance of preparedness and response-coordination across the international community, regardless of whether a biological event is natural, accidental or deliberate in origin.

Dr Filippa Lentzos

Lentzos highlights the need for proper and sustained funding of the BWC, as well as a series of other measure to nurture the treaty regime and enable it to grow.

She recommends the formation of international bodies and capacities to oversee high-risk biological activities, and to investigate suspected outbreaks of international concern as soon as initial reports emerge, regardless of any indications of it being natural, accidental or deliberate in origin.

Dr Lentzos’ five recommendations to make broader biological disarmament architecture fit for purpose in today’s world:

  • An international coordinating body, ideally UN-based, to monitor and inspect high-containment facilities and high-risk biological activities.
  • Action plans, and subsequent implementation plans, to strengthen national, regional and international capacities to identify, respond and mitigate disease outbreaks.
  • An international body, at the nexus between public health and security and ideally UN-based, with a mandate to investigate suspected outbreaks of international concern as soon as initial reports emerge, and regardless of any indications of it being natural, accidental or deliberate.
  • A standing coordinating capacity, ideally UN-based, to conduct independent, in-depth investigations of suspected bioweapons use.
  • A framework to coordinate an international response following any confirmed use of biological weapons.

Lentzos delivered her statement at a virtual meeting together with a number of representatives from disarmament and arms control NGOs around the world. A full recording of the virtual meeting is available on UN Web TV (view Dr Lentzos’ contribution at timestamp 1:05:00) or read her full statement here.

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Filippa Lentzos

Reader in Science and International Security