Preventing Future Pandemics: The Critical Role of Laboratory Biosafety & Biosecurity
By Samantha Dittrich, Associate Director for Global Health Security
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how infectious disease outbreaks anywhere around the globe can have devastating widespread health, economic, and societal consequences. Both at work and at home (and even when we travel), COVID-19 has fundamentally changed our day-to-day life, and we still find ourselves struggling to navigate the new normal. This isn’t the first pandemic and certainly won’t be the last—emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases have raised global concern over the last decade.
The possibility of another major global health security event like the COVID-19 pandemic continues to be amplified by urbanization, population growth, international travel, environmental changes, and the rise of drug resistance. There are also risks associated with advances in biotechnology and their potential use in bioterrorism. Now, more than ever, we need to deal with these risks, threats, and challenges by boosting countries’ preparedness for the next public health crisis. Laboratories are an integral component of public health systems and play a critical role in detecting, preventing, and controlling diseases. However, building laboratory capacity to support a public health system cannot be done effectively without a strong focus on biosafety and biosecurity.
Although biosafety and biosecurity overlap, they are two distinct concepts. In less “science-y” terms, biosafety protects people from germs, and biosecurity protects germs from people. Both are fundamental to human, animal, and environmental health and indispensable to global health security. Although disease outbreaks most often occur naturally, there is always the possibility an outbreak may be caused by an accidental, or even intentional, release of dangerous pathogens.
It may sound like a pathogen getting out of a laboratory and mutating the entire global population into zombie-esque creatures is the plot of the next scary movie. And, that someone taking a pathogen to do bad things with it is a far-fetched plotline from Season 1 of Jack Ryan. But working with dangerous pathogens is inherently risky, and laboratory incidents will unavoidably occur. The goal is to minimize risks to protect laboratory workers and, ultimately, the public and the environment. There is room for improvement in safety and security, emphasizing robust biosafety and biosecurity systems and protocols. This will lead to stronger preparedness for preventing, detecting, and responding to infectious disease threats.
As we’ve seen throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, diseases know no boundaries. Outbreaks can devastate the health of populations, cost billions in economic losses, destabilize political environments, and threaten national security. A commonly asked question is, how can the world prepare for the next pandemic? Indeed, we have learned many lessons from COVID-19, along with lessons learned and successes from other outbreaks over the years. And while much has changed in our world since the start of COVID-19, the pandemic has demonstrated the critical role laboratories play in public health— diagnostic testing, reference testing, disease surveillance, emergency response support, and applied research are all vital in responding to an outbreak.
Preparedness starts with ensuring countries have robust laboratory systems to test for pathogens, immediately confirm an outbreak, and effectively begin a response. The key to building greater laboratories is stronger biosafety and biosecurity capacity—to identify disease threats safely, accurately, and quickly, we first need to close dangerous gaps in the world’s ability to handle and contain dangerous pathogens.