Biological Security

Through the biological security portfolio of Canada’s Global Partnership Program (GPP), the fight against terrorism continues. This portfolio works to prevent terrorists and states of concern from acquiring or developing biological weapons and related materials, equipment, and technology.

The GPP’s biological security portfolio is implementing a comprehensive strategy to Strengthen Global Biological Security.  This strategy, which was developed during Canada’s G8 Presidency in 2010 and was affirmed at the Deauville Summit in 2011, aims to:

  • Secure and account for materials that represent biological proliferation threats;
  • Develop and maintain appropriate and effective measures to prevent, prepare for and respond to the deliberate misuse of biological agents;
  • Strengthen national and global networks to rapidly identify, confirm and respond to deliberate biological attacks;
  • Reinforce and strengthen biological non-proliferation principles, practices and instruments; and
  • Reduce proliferation risks through the advancement and promotion of safe and responsible conduct in biological sciences.

Though initially focused on countries of the former Soviet Union, Canada’s GPP has, since 2009, been working with other members of the Global Partnership and the wider international community to develop and implement biological security initiatives around the world, including in Africa, the Middle East, and the Americas.

“There is no criminal threat with greater potential danger to all countries, regions and people in the world than the threat of bio-terrorism.”
Ronald K. Noble, INTERPOL Secretary General

Biological terrorism poses unique and very serious threats to global security. Terrorist groups have previously sought to obtain and use biological weapons (BW) and remain focused today on acquiring BW capabilities.  In this context, limiting the development of biological weapons and access to harmful biological agents (pathogens) is a key priority for Canada’s Global Partnership Program (GPP). At their 2002 summit in Kananaskis, G8 Leaders endorsed the principle that one of the best ways to prevent a bioterrorist attack is to make it more difficult for terrorists to acquire deadly biological agents. 

Since its inception, the Global Partnership has made important contributions to reduce the threats posed by biological terrorism.  Building on these successes, G8 Leaders agreed at both the 2010 Muskoka and 2011 Deauville Summits that their governments must continue efforts to strengthen global biological security.

The GPP’s biological security activities are contributing to Canada’s fight against terrorism and improving national and international security.  By addressing biological threats at their source through concrete activities, these projects strengthen the safety of Canada and our allies and enhance Canada’s standing as a reliable partner and source of expertise.

Biological Terrorism

Disease is the world's oldest weapon of mass destruction. Throughout history, disease has proven itself to be ruthlessly efficient, persistent and adaptive, responsible for unparalleled suffering and death. The enormous killing potential of disease attracted the attention of a number of militaries in the twentieth century: sophisticated offensive biological weapons programs were developed by various states and dozens of diseases were weaponised.

The Threat of Weaponised Disease

The unprecedented pace of global scientific development, the dual-use nature of biological materials and technologies, and the willingness of terrorist groups or states of proliferation concern to use bioweapons as an “asymmetric” tool of war all combine to make biological attacks one of the most significant and growing security threats faced by the world today.  Although less-publicized than nuclear concerns, biological weapons and their precursor pathogenic materials pose a no less significant threat to global security.

The naturally-occurring and self-replicating character of biological agents represents a unique challenge. The high infection rate of many pathogens means that only a small quantity of such material is needed to develop a robust biological weapons capacity, and that a single incident could cause a major outbreak or pandemic.  The dual-use nature of biological agents and the difficulty of ascertaining whether pathogens have been removed from laboratory facilities make it difficult to prevent the concealment and theft of biological materials for malicious purposes.

It has been extensively reported that terrorist groups are focused on acquiring biological weapons capabilities.  This risk is heightened by the fact that some of the most dangerous pathogens (e.g. anthrax, plague, and Ebola) are endemic to countries with a limited ability to safeguard them. Many biological facilities in these countries need to maintain collections of pathogens to facilitate disease diagnostics, surveillance, and mitigation, including for the development of vaccines. But such countries often cannot afford appropriate security equipment or training, posing a significant risk of diversion, theft, or accidental release from poorly secured facilities. 

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Canada's Role

Canada, in collaboration with other Global Partnership members, is implementing a comprehensive strategy to strengthen global biological security (SGBS) through the GPP’s biological security portfolio. Projects are designed to address a broad range of risk factors to reduce the potential of terrorists acquiring biological weapons and materials, covering all three stages of prevention, detection, and response. Each project must advance one or more of the following objectives:

Improve biological security by…

  • Enhancing the security and safety of existing collections of dangerous pathogens through improvements to laboratory infrastructure and provision of equipment and training
  • Strengthening border controls, law enforcement efforts and international cooperation to detect, deter, and interdict illicit trafficking in biological items
  • Developing robust first-response capabilities in cooperation with INTERPOL and national police forces
  • Supporting and strengthening non-proliferation, arms control and disarmament instruments and agencies such as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the Australia Group.

Manage biorisk by…

  • Supporting the development and implementation of biosafety, biosecurity and biocontainment guidelines and standards, legislation and best practices
  • Strengthening personnel reliability programs for those with access to dangerous pathogens
  • Implementing comprehensive biorisk management systems

Detect and report deliberately caused disease by…

  • Strengthening regional and subregional disease surveillance and detection networks
  • Supporting the gathering of epidemic intelligence
  • Broadening international disease reporting networks (e.g. Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN), Global Early Warning System for Major Animal Diseases (GLEWS)
  • Strengthening the expertise of laboratory personnel through international laboratory twinning programs

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Project Activities

Canada’s GPP supports a range of activities around the globe to promote biological security.

Activities in the Former Soviet Union

In 2002, G8 Leaders agreed to focus the activities of the Global Partnership on countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU). In response, from 2003-2011Canada’s GPP implemented a biological non-proliferation programming strategy in FSU partner countries that focused on:

  • Enhancing biological security (i.e. preventing theft or sabotage of dangerous biological materials) and biological safety (i.e. preventing release of deadly pathogens)
  • Strengthening multilateral biological non-proliferation fora (e.g. Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention)
  • Engaging former biological weapon scientists

Strengthening Global Biological Security

Canada is very active in promoting a concrete and coordinated approach to international cooperative threat reduction activities, which include biological security initiatives. By working with other members of the Global Partnership, relevant international organisations (e.g. the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, INTERPOL) and other key stakeholders, Canada is contributing to the development and implementation of standards, regulations, guidelines and best practices in support of a global, systematic, and standardized approach to biorisk management.

Ultimately, these activities lay the important groundwork for Canada to fulfill its larger obligations under Article X of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) to facilitate the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials, and scientific and technological information for the peaceful use of biological agents and toxins.

Activities in the Former Soviet Union

In the period 2003−2011, Canada’s GPP implemented a comprehensive biological security program in countries of the former Soviet Union (FSU) that helped to reduce a variety of serious biological threats. These projects focused on:

Improving Physical Security  

To prevent the theft or accidental release of dangerous pathogens, Canada's GPP implemented numerous projects to establish appropriate and effective physical protection measures at biological facilities in countries of the FSU.

One key initiative was to support a range of activities in the Kyrgyz Republic, including security upgrades at three vulnerable biological facilities that contained deadly biological agents. This programming allowed these facilities to:

  • Improve perimeter security
  • Enhance laboratory security and safety measures
  • Receive and install biosafety and biocontainment equipment
  • Develop access controls

These upgrades, completed in 2009, played a key role in preventing unauthorised access to one of these facilities (and the dangerous pathogens stored within) in June 2010, during a period of civil unrest.

To address a significant biological proliferation and terrorism threat, GPP also committed to fund the design and construction of a new human & animal health Facility in Bishkek. The new Facility was intended to reduce the significant threat posed by theft, sabotage, accidental release and terrorist acquisition of dangerous pathogens present in the Kyrgyz Republic. Canada and the Kyrgyz Republic signed a Treaty, which entered into force on 8 April 2009, to provide the protection necessary for Canada to undertake the project and ensure that Canada’s funds were properly used.  Unfortunately, owing to circumstances fully beyond the control of the Government of Canada, it was not possible to proceed to construction and the project was cancelled in 2011.

Developing Standards and Guidelines

Adopting and implementing national biosecurity and biosafety guidelines is essential for the development of effective policies, programs and practices. Guidelines also serve as technical documents, providing information and recommendations on the design, construction and commissioning of biological containment facilities. Having these standards in place provides the first and best line of defence against an accidental release or deliberate theft of biological agents. 

With Canada’s support, several countries in the FSU developed modern standards and guidelines for biosafety and biosecurity. Project activities included:

Supporting Biosafety Associations

Biosafety associations play an important role in mitigating biological threats, both by promoting biosafety as a scientific discipline and by providing a forum for the exchange of pertinent information. Canada’s GPP has assisted experts from the FSU to become more active and integrated within the international biosecurity and biosafety community, helping to establish contacts with:

Canada’s GPP has also helped establish national and regional biosafety associations in the FSU, including the Biosafety Association for Central Asia and the Caucasus (BACAC). Formed in November 2008, BACAC includes members from across Central Asia and the Caucasus. Annual training, networking and capacity-building conferences have been held in

  • Almaty, Kazakhstan (May 2009)
  • Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (November 2010)
  • Tbilisi, Georgia (September 2011)

Training

Receiving proper training in biosafety, biosecurity and the use of modern disease diagnostics techniques significantly decreases the risk both of terrorists acquiring deadly pathogens and of accidental release of biological agents.  To address this challenge, Canada’s GPP has worked with institutes and scientists in partner countries to improve awareness of modern biosecurity and biosafety practices and concerns.

Many biological laboratories and institutes in the FSU lacked the financial resources or knowledge to provide adequate training for their personnel.  This situation posed a serious risk, as poor training increases the risk of a biological accident or of improper accounting, storage and transportation of pathogens. To reduce these risks, GPP funding helped establish biosecurity and biosafety training centres in Kazakhstan, Ukraine and the Russian Federation, and supported the development of related training materials such as posters on the safe use and operation of biosafety cabinets in English, French and Russian. 

Building an International Framework for Biological Non-Proliferation

In support of the principles agreed to by G8 leaders at Kananaskis in 2002, Canada’s GPP also implemented a variety of initiatives to promote the adoption, universalization, full implementation and strengthening of multilateral treaties and other international instruments on biological non-proliferation. To encourage a more active role for countries of the FSU in the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention (BTWC) process, Canada sponsored the participation of representatives from former Soviet countries in several events, including:

  • BTWC Meeting of Experts (2008, 2009 and 2010)
  • International Workshop on Export Controls for Biological Materials (Kyrgyzstan, March 2009)
  • BTWC National Implementation Workshop for Countries of Central Asia and the Caucasus (Kazakhstan, September 2009)
  • Biosecurity and bioterrorism response training workshop presented by INTERPOL (Kazakhstan, October 2011) 

Strengthening Global Biological Security

Biological threats exist around the world, but are particularly acute in regions where a variety of endemic disease profiles, broad trans-boundary ecosystems, political instability, and the presence of limited biological security capacities combine. In these regions, which include but are not limited to parts of Africa, the Middle East, the Americas and Southeast Asia, ongoing Global Partnership programming across the five program areas of the GPP’s SGBS strategy is delivering immediate and significant security benefits through the mitigation of biological risks.

Beyond the local laboratory environment, Canada’s GPP is helping to develop, strengthen and enlarge critical disease-surveillance and reporting networks, and supporting the implementation of a global, systematic and standardized approach to biorisk management.

Canada’s GPP continues to provide support for a range of biological security activities through the following international partners:

  • World Health Organization (WHO): Strengthening global capacity to detect and respond to deliberate outbreaks of disease, and supporting national implementation of the 2005 International Health Regulations in countries with limited resources;
  • World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE): Strengthening global capacity to detect and respond to deliberate outbreaks of animal and zoonotic diseases, and supporting OIE’s ongoing assessment of national veterinary services’ capacity to detect, identify and respond to a dangerous disease outbreak;
  • Verification Research, Training and Information Centre (VERTIC): Supporting the efforts of countries to develop and implement effective national legislation so they can better fulfill their national obligations under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC);
  • BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU): Supporting the ISU in conducting more effective outreach to encourage universalization and national implementation of the Convention.

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