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The Role of Biosafety in Global Health Security


By Samantha Dittrich, MPH, Project Manager – Global Health Security, Merrick & Company

In our interconnected world, an infectious disease threat anywhere is a threat everywhere. Past decades have seen several new pathogens emerge and old pathogens reemerge; all have had tremendous impacts on human, animal, and economic health across the globe. The risk of a global pandemic is growing and unfortunately, the world is not ready.

The 1918 influenza pandemic is an example of a global catastrophe. As many as 50 million people were killed worldwide. Experts predict that if a similar contagion happened today, it could spread around the world in less than 36 hours, kill up to 80 million people, and cost our modern economy an estimated $3 million. Yikes.

Attention to global health security has grown significantly over the past few decades, driven by the ongoing threat posed by infectious diseases and other public health threats. Efforts to help prepare and address pandemic and epidemic diseases requires a sustained, coordinated, multisectoral approach that incorporates an understanding of the linkages between human, animal, and environmental health.

Indispensable to global health security are biosafety and biosecurity. Both aim to ensure that pathogens are identified, secured, and monitored appropriately. Biosafety refers to prevention mechanisms (i.e. laboratory practices and procedures, specific construction features of laboratory facilities, safety and personal protective equipment, etc.) designed to reduce the exposure of laboratory personnel, the public, agriculture, and the environment to potentially infectious agents and other biological hazards. Whereas biosecurity focuses on preventing the intentional release of pathogens, biosafety focuses on preventing the accidental release of pathogens by promoting national standards of practice for their safe handling and secure laboratory containment.

Laboratories are an integral component of public health systems and play a critical role in the detection, prevention and control of diseases. Quality laboratories are dependent on the implementation of biosafety best practices. As demonstrated by the recent Ebola and Zika virus outbreaks, it is essential that laboratories have the capacity to work safely with crazy, dangerous, and emerging pathogens. Building laboratory capacity to support a public health system cannot be done effectively without a strong focus on biosafety.

While the U.S. Government has supported global health security work for more than two decades, its involvement has expanded over time, and global health security is now a defined component of the U.S. global health response. The U.S. played a key role in the development of the Global Heath Security Agenda (GHSA), an international partnership launched in 2014. The GHSA is a global effort comprised of nations, international organizations, and civil society to accelerate progress toward a world safe and secure from global infectious disease threats and to promote global health security as an international priority.

Within the GHSA, biosafety and biosecurity represent a foundational and fundamental action package to meet the common GHSA goals. The GHSA Action Package on Biosafety and Biosecurity (APP3) aims to advance global biosafety and biosecurity through the development, implementation, and maintenance of national biosafety and biosecurity frameworks and oversight systems. Biosafety and biosecurity are not only cross-cutting across the GHSA action packages, but also cross-sectoral and essential building blocks of functioning communities.

Since implementation of the first phase of the GHSA, partner countries have made significant progress in establishing or strengthening multi-sectoral systems capable of responding effectively to global health threats. Yet, the world is still not ready to handle the next pandemic. Essential to preparedness are laboratory-based surveillance and outbreak detection. Laboratories must have the capacity to safely handle and detect known or unknown pathogens. If laboratories are safe and effective, they are a key line of defense in protecting health and saving lives and one step closer for countries to be ready for when the next global public health crisis hits.

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