Australia needs a more comprehensive strategy to deal with biosecurity threats
27 Oct 2022|

US President Joe Biden’s national security strategy sets out his administration’s plan to advance America’s vital interests, position the US to outmanoeuvre its geopolitical competitors, tackle shared challenges and set the world firmly on a path towards a brighter and more hopeful future. It’s understandable, when the world is still dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, that the strategy details how the US aims to foster a cooperative approach to global health security.

The pandemic exposed weaknesses in healthcare systems across the globe. Many nations failed to address the spread of the virus, and the US did too little, too late.

In 2019, the US was ranked the most prepared nation in the world for pandemic readiness, but substandard policy and leadership undermined its ability to respond effectively to Covid. It paid in lives and economic damage.

With significantly lower Covid case numbers than the US, Australia faced similar challenges. Poor coordination between jurisdictions on, for example, the handling of cruise ship cases, undermined successes. Confusing public-health messaging about the AstraZeneca vaccine hampered Australia’s ability to slow the spread. That and other factors led to a reliance on community lockdowns that stagnated the economy while hoping for ‘Covid zero’.

The pandemic also highlighted inadequacies in the larger system of global health governance. As nations turned inward to control the virus, international coordination went out the window. China dragged its feet on sharing vital genomic information with the World Health Organization at the onset of the pandemic. The US under Donald Trump’s administration withdrew funding from the WHO. Nations squabbled for early access to vaccines and rejected the WHO’s cries for collective vaccine development. And the WHO itself was widely criticised for its failure to act decisively when the virus first emerged, revealing deficiencies within the organisation.

While Covid-19 pandemic has cost many lives, worsened economic inequality, increased human suffering, and is forecast to cost US$12.5 trillion by 2024, it fell well short of an apocalyptic scenario. It appears that the Biden administration is preparing for what may still come. Biden’s strategy recognises Covid failures and sets out to prepare for the next ‘catastrophic biological risk’, whether that’s a ‘natural’ pandemic or a deliberate or accidental biological event. The strategy details Biden’s goal to position the US and its allies to set national health standards and outlines how the US will foster global cooperation on international health issues.

Biden appears to have learned from Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy successes over the past few years. The US has reinstated funding to the WHO and recently raised record-level funding for the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. Biden intends to continue improving public-health and vaccine access for other nations, recognising the importance of a strong global health system driven by cooperation with others, ‘including those with whom we disagree’.

The strategy also outlines how the US will contribute to global efforts to mitigate the threat posed by deliberate and accidental biological risks, including bioweapons and pathogens escaping from laboratories. Biden aims to achieve this by bolstering the Biological Weapons Convention, addressing the dual-use technology challenge, encouraging international norms against bioweapon use, and building strong biosecurity and biodefence policies. In short, the US is turning its back on Trump’s problematic and narrow-minded approach to biodefence and is adopting a policy reminiscent of his predecessor Barack Obama’s national strategy for countering biological threats.

Biden’s strategy recognises that biological risks pose a significant threat, not only to the lives and wellbeing of humans, but also to national security. It captures the intersecting nature of the dangers posed by pandemics and those arising from accidental and deliberate biological threats. It plans to address perhaps the largest lesson from Covid, that ‘pandemics know no borders’.

Under Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, Australia published its first national biosecurity strategy, detailing the biological threats facing the agricultural sector and outlining the biosecurity impacts of emerging threats like climate change. The strategy explains how Australia will ‘leverage opportunities for improvement’ by enhancing community engagement, building more flexible and coordinated preparedness and response mechanisms, and fostering regional and local collaboration. Given the advent of Covid-19, it’s not clear why the document doesn’t address biosecurity threats that may directly affect humans.

This appears to be a significant lapse when we’re still in the Covid era. No nation was adequately prepared for the pandemic, yet we have the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, improve national public-health standards and develop a stronger global health system able to respond to biological risks across the spectrum. Biden’s strategy identifies ‘a narrow window of opportunity to take steps nationally and internationally to prepare for the next pandemic and to strengthen our biodefense’.

An Australian strategy should consider public-health capabilities as a national security issue requiring immediate attention. Integrating biosecurity and biodefence into a larger, more wholistic strategy would recognise the intersecting needs to prepare for and defend against a wide range of biological threats. Such an approach would provide a greater return on investment than a siloed policy that deals with accidental and deliberate biological risks independently.

While Australia was ranked second in the world for its pandemic preparedness by the Global Health Security Index 2021, we have identified weaknesses in our prevention and rapid-response mechanisms. A future strategy should discuss how Australia could address these.

Finally, by recognising that our own security against biological risks is only as good as our neighbours’ preparedness, we need to invest in core public-health capabilities in the region and look for opportunities to collaborate towards building a more effective system of global health governance.

The US’s return to an outward-looking, cooperative and preventive approach to biological risks marks a giant step in the right direction, and shows how nations, including Australia, should be proactively preparing for the next pandemic, and for all biological threats. More clearly defining its national strategy would be a good place for Australia to start.