By Kathryn Insley
Biological agents including viruses, bacteria, and toxins, can devastate local economies with their potential effects on humans and livestock. In addition to potentially catastrophic immediate impact, these agents could also set in motion long-term disasters, causing regional instability and challenging international security. For these reasons, the U.S. Department of State invests in many programs to reduce biological security risks.
To understand the source and evolution of the biological agents in an outbreak, scientists compare samples from the outbreak to those in their labs. Not all biological materials have the same level of risk, and scientists use a graded approach to protect communities from their accidental or intentional release. Especially in the case of the most dangerous materials, scientists must use stringent protocols to prevent their accidental escape or intentional removal from the lab. These techniques prevent the unintentional exposure of workers or communities as well as prevent the theft, diversion, or unauthorized removal of dangerous biological agents.
Because diseases may freely transgress state borders, preventing outbreaks caused by biological agents is a matter of international concern. The State Department funds projects around the world to improve the safe handling and responsible use of dangerous biological materials. By training local trainers to build in-country biorisk management expertise, such programs have a multiplied effect. One example of the U.S. investment in global health security is our cooperation with public and animal health partners in Algeria.
The State Department carefully evaluates and selects the most impactful projects for each region, pairing local needs with appropriate subject matter expertise. One source of such expertise is Sandia National Laboratories (SNL), which has received State Department funding to implement numerous health security projects. Just this April, Lora Grainger, working at the Labs’ International Biological and Chemical Threat Reduction (IBCTR), traveled to Algeria to train Algerian trainers on a project funded by the State Department. Participants included scientists working in Algeria’s national network of laboratories managed by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Institut National de Médecine Véterinaire (INMV).
In an advanced trainer workshop, more than a dozen Algerian experts continued to build the skills and knowledge on material safety after having taken an introductory training course held by IBCTR in May 2016 that was also sponsored by the State Department. More importantly, Algerian trainers developed the skills to design new courses tailored to local needs and independently deliver them where they are most needed. Following the cooperative training, these trainers will have ongoing access to Sandia mentors.
The U.S. and Algerian governments’ partnership to develop biorisk management trainers has existed for several years. This summer, Sandia’s Country Lead for Algeria, Lynn Fondren, will deliver the first course on secure shipping of biological materials enabling domestic shippers to meet the gold standard of safety precautions set by the International Air Transportation Association (IATA). This State Department-funded follow-on course will prepare Algerian experts in the Ministries of Health, Agriculture, and Higher Education to become trainers that instruct individuals within their respective ministries to become certified to ship biological materials in accordance with the IATA standard requirements. Implementing practices like triple packing and special handling by carriers will keep communities safer even when transporting samples domestically.
For scientists with a shared interest in global health security, these projects are a valuable opportunity to share information and learn from each other. They face challenges unique to their varied environments, but collaborating on ways to address threats and prevent disasters is among the most interesting and rewarding parts of their work. The State Department is proud to support efforts that mitigate biorisks around the world and strengthen global health security.
Kathryn Insley is the Acting Director Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. This article first appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State official blog.