Written evidence submitted by Hamish de Bretton-Gordon OBE RE(V)
 

Chemical Biological Radiological & Nuclear (CBRN) Expert

Humanitarian operations in warzones expert

Director Doctors Under Fire

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon is a world leading expert in Chemical and Biological weapons and Bio Security. He is also a director of the NGO ‘Doctors Under Fire’ and an advisor to the Syrian Medical charity UOSSM.  Hamish is a commissioned reserve officer in the Army’s Engineer & Logistic Staff Corp as senior advisor & mentor to the MOD on CBRN.  He is the ‘Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Magdalene College Cambridge 20/21.

 

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY – BIO SECURITY POST COVID

Bio Security is the poor relation of the ‘other’ securities especially Cyber, for good reasons, as a pandemic or biological terror, appeared an unlikely threat especially on a global scale, until COVID struck.  The UK must now prepare for the next pandemic or biological terror event to ensure physical and economic resilience.  Like any threat, with the appropriate mitigation in place, up front, respective governments’ can provide the required resilience to their people and economy.

A COVID type event is thought as a 1 in a 100-year event – this is probably now a false assumption.  Perhaps compared to Spanish Flu at the beginning of last century, but did we just get away with MERS, SARS and EBOLA?  Global connectivity, with millions ‘usually’ in the air at any one time means spread and transmission can be anywhere on the globe in 24 hours.  There are now over 70 ‘level 4’ biological containment facilities where the most potent pathogens are stored and worked on.  This is a large increase over the last 30 years and is an Achilles heel which now requires much greater scrutiny as does the response to C19 exposing massive deficits in both national and interconnected global response even amongst Five Eyes. as part of the global Bio Security strategy. 

The terror threat must not be ignored, as biological weapons are the ultimate terror weapon and their massive impact if successful is what terror is about.  The fear factor to the public is 10 as to 1, and passage of information especially to cover the anticipated tsunami of disinformation and propaganda will need to be the cornerstone to an effective strategy.

Mitigation for Resilience

It is very difficult for politicians to take risk in such situations. 

In order to have an effective Bio Security stance in future, it is mostly likely to be effective if a coalition of the willing, FIVE EYES, with two permanent members of the UN Security Council work together.  It is highly likely that China and Russia will veto measures to broaden the Biological Weapons Convention and other controlling protocols.  The ‘silver bullet’ is the medical countermeasures where these two countries are the world leaders.  Domestic production of MCM, ventilators, PPE etc is essential to avoid reliance on China for these in future but a shared responsibility between US and UK might the most effective way to assure this supply.  Control of data, information and robust but democratic leadership is essential to deliver a viable and effective Bio Security road map in future.

Hitherto, luck, not preparedness has prevented a COVID 19 type crisis.

BACKGROUND - BIO SECURITY – COVID 19

From a Bio Security perspective, the impact of a ‘not very toxic’ pathogen has blind-sided us all, axiomatically more than a very toxic one, due to its rapid global transmission.  The unthinkable Hollywood, ‘beyond possible disaster movie’ is playing out in front of all our eyes.  I researched the 200 most likely CBRN threats to US Mainland 2 years ago in a report for DHS and neither the Salisbury attack nor a pandemic featured.  US and UK can even less afford to be blindsided by ‘COVID 25’.  As we begin to come out of this nightmare, we have the chance, goodwill and tailwind to mitigate this threat if we so choose and develop the resilience required.

Bio Security has been the poor relation of the ‘other’ securities especially Cyber, for good reasons as it appeared an unlikely threat especially on a global scale, but COVID has changed all that.

Not least because of the psychological impact of chem/Bio event to the physical, which is at least 10 as to 1.  From my experiences in Syria, people are far more frightened of chemical attack than conventional but less than 0.5% of casualties are caused by Chemical attack.  This ratio is not dissimilar for COVID compared to other diseases/illness.

What is Bio Security?

Biosecurity, as originally conceptualized, was a set of preventive measures designed to reduce the risk of transmission of infectious diseases in crops and livestock, quarantined pests and living modified organisms. From the 1990s, in response to the threat of biological terrorism, biosecurity started including the prevention of the theft of biological materials from research laboratories. The emerging nature of biosecurity threats means that small scale risks blow up rapidly, thus an effective policy becomes a challenge for there are limitations on time and resources available for analysing threats and estimating the likelihood of their occurrence.

The term now includes the management of biological threats to people, industries or environment, but can also extend to pandemic diseases and the threat of bioterrorism. The World Health Organisation provided an information note describing biosecurity as a strategic and integrated approach to analysing and managing relevant risks to human, animal and plant life and health and associated risks for the environment.

Advances in technology have meant that many civilian research projects in medicine have the potential to be used in military applications (dual-use research) and biosecurity protocols are used to prevent dangerous biological materials from falling into the hands of malevolent parties.

Controversial experiments in synthetic biology, including the synthesis of poliovirus from its genetic sequence, and the modification of H5N1 for airborne transmission in mammals, led to calls for tighter controls on the materials and information used to perform similar feats. Ideas include better enforcement by national governments and private entities concerning shipments and downloads of such materials, and registration or background check requirements for anyone handling such materials.

 

KEY ISSUES:

Likelihood & Impact

The economic impact alone requires us to mitigate this threat, which hitherto the risk was ‘Likelihood low but Impact massive’ and with these odds, most thought a risk worth taking. Not now; future likelihood is a least medium and warrants our undivided attention.  The Salisbury nerve agent attack is a massive neo advert to every dictator, despot, rogue state and terrorist of the massive impact gained from a chemical attack; COVID has done the same for biological attack or pandemic.

Hitherto COVID 19 is thought as a 1 in a 100-year event.  Perhaps compared to Spanish Flu at the beginning of last century, but did we just get away with MERS, SARS and EBOLA?  Global connectivity, with millions ‘usually’ in the air at any one time means spread and transmission can be anywhere on the globe in 24 hours.  There are now over 70 level 4 containment facilities where the most potent pathogens are stored and worked on.  This is a massive increase over the last 30 years and is a definite Achilles heel which now requires much greater control, as part of the global Bio Security defence network. 

The terror threat must not be ignored, as biological weapons are the ultimate terror weapon and their massive impact if successful is what terror is about.  I investigated ISIS trying to introduce plague to refugee camps in Syria and German security services interdicted vast amounts of weaponised RICIN, a biological toxin from jihadists in Germany last year.  Combining the terror threat and the continued increase of Level 4 containment facilities, the prospect of an ‘I am Pilgrim’ scenario is not as far-fetched as it first appears. For those who have not read this epic ‘fiction’ novel it is where a terrorist tries to infect the US with a vaccine resistant smallpox virus.  Some will remember the Amerithrax, bio attack in 2001, where letters laced with Anthrax, a biological pathogen were posted in the US.  5 people were killed and 17 injured.  The clean-up cost over $200m at 2003 prices, and it has spurned 69,000 copycat threats in the US alone since to this day.

Mitigation for Resilience

It is very difficult for Governments & executives to take risk in such situations.  Despite the fact in the UK over 95% of deaths are the very old and very sick, but nearly 65M are locked down to protect them; the economy could shrink by 35% and unemployment rise to over 6 million. There is a similar metric for the US.  Somebody said, ‘do not make the solution worse than the problem’. These are the challenges we must address to develop resilience to the next pandemic.

 

DATA

The control and use of data is key to preventing and subsequently managing a pandemic or biological attack.  The protection and prevention of manipulation of that data is sacrosanct.  The loss of at least 7 days of data and dis-information following the initial COVID cases in Wuhan, allowed the virus 7 days to spread and it did globally.  Those countries like NZ who have got a hold of their data have significantly reduced the impact of the virus.  It is clear that under the fog of COVID much malevolent cyber activity is happening to weaken security and defence structures across the globe.  Contact tracing and testing via a universal App seems to be the way ahead and its protection of data is key to success. The civilian approach and normative frameworks on how data on virology, clinical impact gets into public domain has been found to be seriously wanting this time.

 

APPOACH

 

29 August 2020