A close view of a laboratory technician in the process of pipetting a sample out of a vial. Photo: CDC/Unsplash
- India is ill-equipped to detect or respond to biological threats arising from natural or artificial sources – even though it has a large biotechnological capacity.
- Given the availability of this strength, our key policy priorities should be to raise awareness, establish a science-policy connection and mobilise resources.
- However, policies in this area have been plagued by ambiguities – the result of siloised expertise and a knowledge mismatch between scientists and policymakers.
In the last few decades, discussions about biosafety and biosecurity have arisen several times, both in the public imagination and in international discourse.
While instances of bioterrorism have been documented in the past, some even dating to 1400 BC, a major event that captured public imagination on this front was the ‘Anthrax letters’ episode. Letters laced with anthrax appeared in the US mail soon after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and caused the death of five American citizens.
Similar discussions have arisen now in the post-COVID era, surrounding the possibility that the novel coronavirus ‘leaked’ from a research facility. Setting aside the arguments on both sides of this debate, the theory has also renewed attention on biological threats, natural or synthetic.
Of the 59 biosafety level 4 (BSL-4) labs around the world, which handle infectious pathogens for research, only one-fourth scored high on biosafety and security in the 2021 Global Health Security Index. This implies the big scope for bio-risk management in the other facilities.
Biosafety v. biosecurity
The terms ‘biosafety’ and ‘biosecurity’ are often clubbed together but there is a clear difference in their meanings and implications. As members of the US National Research Council put it, “biosafety is about protecting people from bad ‘bugs’; biosecurity is about protecting ‘bugs’ from bad people”.
An important part of biosecurity is the risk of weaponisation of biological agents by state or non-state actors, especially in India, due to the relative ease of access to biological agents and the strong biotechnological capacity of its rival nations. India is also vulnerable to these risks due to its high population density, frail public health infrastructure, low spending on public healthcare, and lack of training on and awareness of biosafety and biosecurity measures.
Sources of risk
Both our biosafety and biosecurity could be compromised when naturally occurring infectious agents, like a disease-causing virus, accidentally escape from a storage facility or evolve to become more transmissible and infectious among humans. India is currently ill-equipped to detect or respond to threats arising from either source – even though it has a large and growing biotechnological capacity in academic and industrial institutions.
Given the availability of this strength, our key policy priorities should have been to raise awareness, establish a science-policy connection and mobilise resources. Instead, policies in this area have been plagued by ambiguities.
First, biosecurity has been viewed diversely as a health matter (a state subject), a scientific matter (under the Department of Biotechnology) and as a national security matter (under the defence ministry). So there is no biosecurity policy that could help us develop strategies to detect and manage biological threats at a national level.
This situation is exacerbated by a lack of synergy and common strategy and the division of responsibilities between multiple agencies, including the Department of Biotechnology, the health ministry, the National Disaster Management Authority and the Defence R&D Organisation.
Today, India is ranked 66 in the 2021 Global Health Security Index, with a dismal rank of 70 for biosafety and a slightly better 58 on biosecurity indicators. This performance leaves a lot to be desired for a country that is as biotechnological capable as India.
The major gaps are visible from policy and governance perspectives. As in many countries, including the US, the UK and Japan, biosecurity should come under the purview of a single national body. It could also be the nodal agency to coordinate between the fragmented state departments and multiple other government bodies.
Currently, our risk-assessment exercises occur in the siloes of plant health, animal health, emerging diseases and so forth. Instead, we need to adopt a ‘One Health’ approach into our existing intelligence networks, in which experts assess risks on all these fronts together. We can then also develop case studies to demonstrate the associated scope and threat-level associated with biological threats.
Capacity-building and periodic training of personnel to both detect and report biological threats is another critical factor.
To be sure, the lack of policy frameworks and institutional mechanisms is not limited to India. This is the situation in many countries, especially in the ‘Global South’, thanks to limited capacity and awareness. Like India, these countries also deal with a fast-growing population, climate change and rapid disruptions to ecosystems that only encourage human-animal interactions.
Apart from the siloisation, another major challenge in the way of a national biosecurity policy is a lack of awareness even among scientists working in biological sciences about the full extent of biological threats. On the other side, the essential science-policy connection is missing as well, as most policymakers have a limited scientific understanding of biological threats.
This is an opportunity for India to partner with other countries in the Global South, which share many of the same challenges, in multilateral fora like the UN Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and the WHO.
The BWC, initiated in 1975, is a global treaty created to prohibit the “development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use” of biological weapons. Currently, 185 states are party to this convention. However, like nuclear power and communication technologies, biological research is often dual-use – which means the same technology can be beneficial to society in the hands of good-faith actors or transform into a threat in the hands of bad-faith ones.
One way the BWC tackles this is by “confidence-building measures”, as part of which all parties to the convention have to submit details, including data on biological defence research and development programmes, outbreaks of infectious diseases, declaration of regulations and laws on this topic, to the convention.
On the flip side, the BWC suffers from many shortcomings, including the absence of a compliance mechanism, weak implementation, lack of built-in science and technology advice mechanisms, and a very small secretariat. India has actively participated in discussions on the BWC and indicated its support for institutional strengthening of the convention. However, the country has failed to take a leadership role in biosecurity in general and at the BWC in particular.
In contrast, China and Pakistan have come together to sponsor the ‘Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists’, a widely acknowledged and endorsed document in BWC deliberations.
Further, there is also a need to include the younger generation as important stakeholders in biosecurity conversations to ensure long-term engagement. In this direction, the UN has launched the ‘Youth4Disarmament’ and ‘Youth4Biosecurity’ initiatives, with support from South Korea and the European Union.
One outcome of these initiatives is the ‘Youth Declaration for Biosecurity’, which includes several recommendations on including the youth in biorisk management and the science-advice mechanism.
Similar initiatives to include the youth in India could empower its biosafety and biosecurity programme on both the international and the domestic fronts.
The last two decades have produced numerous examples of how breaches in biosafety and biosecurity are emerging as global threats that can endanger the fragile global economic, social and political fabric. It has been accompanied by an urgent need to develop institutional mechanisms to mobilise resources and prevent, manage and mitigate bio-threats.
India itself is on the threshold of creating a framework to address these and related challenges, actively participating in international deliberations, sharing resources and providing assistance to other countries could position India as a global leader in this field. It just has to take one more step.
Surat Parvatam is a science writer and currently a senior research associate at the Centre for Predictive Human Model Systems, a science and policy centre at the Atal Incubation Centre-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (AIC-CCMB).
Suryesh K. Namdeo is the programme officer of the DST Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Fellowship at the DST Centre for Policy Research. He is also a member of the Indian National Young Academy of Sciences.