From the Principal Investigator, Prof. Akin Abayomi
The Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium or GET, was set up in response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014. Several experts on the Continent lamented the very limited understanding and capacity to mount a response to a public health threat caused by a high consequence pathogen, let alone how to put measures in place to prevent such scenarios. We quickly became aware of the close synergies that need to exist between medical, logistics and security agencies in preventing and responding to what we now clearly understand as biosecurity threats causing our focus to shift over the years to one of preparedness and support for policy formulation in the African Biosecurity space.
GET found the understanding of biosecurity to be a very underdeveloped area on the continent with clear opportunities for using biosecurity to dramatically improve on capacity for prevention and medical countermeasures during public health crises. We also came to understand the tremendous overlap and inextricable linkages between environment, human, animal and plant health in the one health paradigm. So what is biosecurity? In a nutshell the responsible custodianship of the biosphere. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization define biosecurity in the context of a strategic and integrated approach that encompasses the policy, regulatory frameworks, instruments and activities for analyzing and managing relevant risks to human, animal and plant health, and associated risks to the environment. Biosecurity covers food safety, zoonosis, the introduction of animal and plant diseases and pests, the introduction and release of living modified organisms (LMOs) and their products (genetically modified organisms or GMOs), and the introduction and management of invasive alien species. Thus, biosecurity is a holistic concept of direct relevance to the sustainability of agriculture, and wide-ranging aspects of public health and protection of the environment, including biological diversity. Biosecurity means different things to different disciplines.
Laboratory Biosecurity: Prevents loss, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release of pathogens or toxins.
Medical Biosecurity: Ensures systems are in place to equip the medical fraternities’ ability to respond to biological threats through well-prepared personnel, operating in accredited facilities and medical countermeasure protocols in order to minimize morbidity and mortality. This includes the means to conducting research especially during a biological threat caused by a high consequence pathogen that may be unknown or have limited treatment modalities available. Such research must happen under appropriate governance structures.
Food and Agriculture: Manages biological risk in the food, plants and environmental sectors. Essentially, it is a holistic concept to ensure sustainability of agriculture and food security.
Environmental Biosecurity: Includes plant pests, zoonosis, genetically modified plants and their products, management of invasive alien species and genotypes and the protection of biodiversity and the environment.
Animal Health Biosecurity: Ensures the creation of barriers to limit the opportunities for infected animals or their products to enter uninfected sites and ensure safe animal protein for consumption.
Life Sciences Researcher: It means responsible conduct of research and accountability to society. Security Agencies: To ensure systems are in place to assess risk and take counter measures to eliminate potential hazards.
Legislators: Ensuring the laws of the land are constantly updated to adopt international treaties and to keep abreast of biotechnological developments.
Rapid Respond and Medical Emergency Preparedness agencies: Protocols are in place to rapidly respond to biological threats when they occur with a multi sectorial organised approach
Public Health: Ensure that early warning systems are in place through integrated disease surveillance mechanisms to identify and predict likely emerging hot spots.
An integrated biosecurity framework is therefore multi-dimensional and requires high level coordination in order to protect a countries way of life, natural productive resources and biodiversity from harmful effects of pests, diseases, toxins and technology that threaten to corrode the wellbeing of society. It goes without saying that biosecurity is an essential part of sustainable development and national security. In the last 20 years, demographic expansion in Africa has had increasing impact on the earth with over utilization of nature’s resources some of which have finite supply such as forests, fresh water, fresh air and biological species. As a result, there has been almost a four-fold increase in zoonotic events on the continent in the last 10 years. Increasing industrialization over the past 200 years has seen humanity accelerate science and technology, resulting in what is understood now as the four stages of industrial development culminating in the current dispensation known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution or the 4IR. The four stages of the industrial revolution have been coupled with the ethos of capitalism and exploitation, which aspires to maximize profits at the expense of humanity and the environment thereby creating even more insult to the biological systems of nature.
Africa, suffered tremendous pillage during the preceding 3 industrial revolutions in the form of slavery and colonialism, which has left the continent in a state of perpetual conflict and instability till today. One of the consequences of this is a plethora of Non-State Actors and Terrorist organizations emerging in response to environmental and economic pressures. This scenario behoves us to be mindful of the opportunities for these organizations to resort to biological or chemical means of aggression to achieve their objectives. All stages of the dynamic transformation of man’s ability to manipulate his environment has brought both tremendous benefits and at the same time, many challenges. These challenges threaten the biosphere and the immediate ecosystem in which we are so intimately connected to and dependent upon for health, harmony and survival. If we continue to interrupt nature’s way of providing renewal and deep cleansing of the biosphere we set up vicious cyclical currents that result in biological threats and ecological instability due to loss of nature’s intrinsic control mechanisms. Nature has its own way of relieving the pressure we apply on it and when it does the impact on humanity can be devastating. We are just entering what we now call the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) characterized by the fastest pace of biotechnological advances in the history of mankind. 4IR is possible because of certain scientific and technological breakthroughs that are going to revolutionize the way we live on earth. These are the ability to modify genetic codes, the dramatic increase in computational analysis and mining of big data, fast internet and the advent of 5G linking all gadgets on earth into one cloud of huge data. This ability to manipulate the very codes of life that have taken thousands of centuries to find balanced equilibrium and delicate interdependencies is likely to have very major consequences if not governed and managed with extreme oversight and responsibility. This is likely to be an impossible expectation as many of such biotechnological advances such as gene editing and gene drive technology are easily and readily available to scientists who may be operating without appropriate oversight and due diligence. The probability of harm caused by dual use technology has never been higher. The risk of creating uncontrollable biological entities is extremely concerning particularly in a world that is still plagued with political unrest and regional conflict. This has given birth to the fear of Global Catastrophic event or existential risk. Such a scenario would threaten the premature extinction of humanity or the permanent and drastic destruction of its potential for desirable future development leaving some survivors alive but unable to rebuild society. Existential risks are especially worth focusing on in Africa because of our vulnerable human capital and infrastructure deficiencies and our inability to mount effective responses. Poor resilience would have devastating impacts on the continent far in excess of what would occur in more developed environments faced with the same risk threat. In the face of this reality, GET has been involved in multiple activities highlighting the importance of biosecurity awareness at both the policy and community level in Africa and critically amongst tertiary institutions where countermeasures are likely to be formulated. There are numerous international treaties that address Biosecurity and we are particularly involved in ensuring that these treaties become domesticated and institutionalized into our legal, security and academic institutions.
We encourage you to attend our annual biosecurity conference whenever one is close to your vicinity in Africa.
Akin Abayomi is a specialist in Internal Medicine and Haematology with an interest in environmental integrity and biosecurity. He is currently Professor at the Nigerian Institute of Medical Research, Yaba, Lagos and Principal Investigator of the Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium.