The UK government has recently published a summary of public responses to its Call for Evidence, which it launched in February with the intention of collating multi-disciplinary input from health and security experts to help shape the UK’s biological security strategy (see further here).

The response closed on 1 April, with 118 responses received from across academia (46 per cent), industry (19 per cent), government (8 per cent) and trade associations (6 per cent). Overall, respondents predicted an increase in overall risk from biological security threats to 2030. The responses will inform the planned “refresh” of the existing UK Biological Security Strategy from 2018 (the subject of significant criticism, see further here and here).

Increased risks from biological security threats

Key considerations impacting respondents’ agreement in an elevated biological threat level included:   

  • Climate change and globalisation factors leading to changing patterns of human, animal and plant health, exacerbating the risk from naturally occurring threats such as vector-borne diseases.
  • AMR (antimicrobial resistance) as the “silent pandemic”.
  • Increased likelihood of accidental release and potential misuse, due to pace and scale of advances in biotechnology, a “lack of international oversight” of the proliferation of high-contaminant labs and with “insufficient” guidance oversight mechanisms which have failed to keep pace with technological developments.
  • Vulnerabilities (exposed by the pandemic) to biological threats which may incentivise malicious actors to pursue bioweapons.

Recommendations for action on biological security threats

The government groups respondents’ suggestions to address the biosecurity challenges into “key themes”, including:

  1. Governance and leadership: a whole-of-government approach was favoured (across defence, security and “One Health”), with the importance of periodic review and publicly available monitoring against clearly defined goals and timelines.
  2. Data and analysis: improved data access, data-sharing mechanisms and interoperability between governments and external partners were seen as key to effective biological threat detection.
  3. Enhanced domestic and international regulation, identifying a need to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention and building international laws and restrictions to address concerns around the “democratisation of science”, as well as reducing biothreats through deterrence.
  4. Improving research and laboratory standards, safety and security, with a general view that formal oversight mechanisms were required throughout the research cycle, whilst also encouraging better self-regulation.
  5. Leveraging international best practice, including from the US with respect to import systems and approach to research and development; from Australia and New Zealand with their border measures and cautious approach to biological security; and from South Korea and Singapore for their emergency health security approaches.
  6. Sustained investment and incentivisation in science (vaccinology and genomic surveillance) and industry (in the context of UK resilience and ability to rapidly scale up a response) to ensure that the UK has the “right science focus” and a strong manufacturing base and stockpiling capabilities.

What’s next for biological security?

The updated Biological Security Strategy is expected in the Autumn. But the overall feedback of an increased threat to biological security is not new or particularly surprising:

  • ESG-related biological threats posed by, for example, AMR, release of APIs into the environment, and climate change are already being actively considered by the life sciences sector (see for example here where we discuss steps being taken to address these issues).
  • With respect to cybersecurity in this area the ENISA (European Union Agency for Cybersecurity) recently emphasised the life sciences sector as “particularly vulnerable” to cybercrime and highlighted an “urgent need” to focus research efforts on cyberbiosecurity. We have seen similar concerns emerging with respect to health data security and protection from cyber-crime as the UK government seeks to unlock NHS health data at a systemic level (see further here).

The ultimate refreshed Biological Security Strategy later this year will set the overall policy background for regulation in this space and is likely to be influential. It comes at a time when the UK government is under pressure to set out in concrete terms the regulatory direction for the UK post-Brexit across the life sciences and healthcare space (including with respect to regulation of medical devices; AI, clinical trials and health data access).