Our complete coverage of the Biotechnology Industry Organization(BIO)’s 2010 Biosecurity Conference, which occurred in Chicago on May 5-6th, can be found in the FAS Biosecurity Blog archives at: http://fas.org/blog/bio/tag/bio2010
Several recurring themes emerged in the presentations by the world’s experts in fields like public health, national security, food defense, biological weapons, and new advances in research. Here is our analysis of some of the trends observed at the conference.
Narrowing the range of threats through risk assessment
Conference participants cited a wide variety of recent infectious disease outbreaks at the meeting; examples ranged from emerging infections like SARS and swine flu to endemic health threats like malaria and foot and mouth disease. Further, no discussion of the topic would be complete without mention of the 2001 Anthrax bioterror attacks and the previous unsuccessful attempts by groups like Aum Shinriyko.
The point that all participants agreed on was that the biosecurity challenges of the future cannot be solved by purely brute force attempts to address every possible outcome. Instead, the focus must be on more versatile measures that are better suited to addressing the unknown. Risk assessment and improved surveillance play important roles in this effort, as these tools can be used to give as much advance warning of an outbreak as possible, so that other efforts can have the maximum possible time in which to respond to the threat.
The uncertain market for unknown treatments
Though there is controversy surrounding the exact cost of developing new treatments, most observers agree that the process can be both lengthy and expensive. When the goal is to treat a condition that is already present in the population, such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, or malaria, a private company can determine the size of the potential market and secure funding based on that expected demand for the finished product. By contrast, a company that is considering work on a vaccine against biological weapons is in the paradoxical position of hoping that their product will never be used, while still requiring some expectation of recouping their costs down the road.
Industry participants at the conference, from the smallest start-up to the largest pharmaceutical giant, were in unanimous agreement that the present lack of certainty is deterring participation in the biodefense field. All called for increased guaranteed purchases – a more common practice in the defense contracting arena – and improved clarity in regulations and contract requirements. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to this issue in a tough economic climate where resources are increasingly limited. Policymakers need to weigh the potential benefits of developing and maintaining the infrastructure that would be needed to produce biological countermeasures against other pressing and sometimes more immediate needs.
Diseases without borders
Past outbreaks have shown that, more than ever, infectious diseases do not respect the borders between states, nations, and continents. Participants agreed that all efforts to combat diseases – whether naturally occurring or the result of the misuse of biology – need to be collaborative. However, this type of cooperation, especially when it requires organizations and governments to spend money on efforts outside their normal constituencies, can be challenging to justify and implement.
At the same time, it does appear that improvements in communications technology will facilitate efforts to combat disease. In particular, all eyes appear to be on the internet, in the hopes of anticipating the next outbreak with the assistance of online news and social networking.
Biosecurity is a broad subject area, and many topics could be the subject of an entire conference on their own. In this context, the impressive slate of speakers at BIO 2010 did an excellent job in introducing these issues to an audience that might be less familiar with them, including industry in the dialogue on biosecurity. However, many pressing questions still have yet to be resolved, and it is critical that this discussion go forward in the future. We hope that BIO will continue to host these discussions at its 2011 meeting, which is slated to occur in Washington DC (which, as home to policy groups like FAS and most Federal agencies, would be an ideal location to draw even more participation next year).