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Joined Up Thinking – Part 1

Biosafety refers to principles, technologies, practices and measures to prevent unintended exposure to biological agents and toxins. Biosecurity refers to the protection, control and accountability measures implemented to prevent the loss, theft, misuse or intentional release of biological agents and toxins.

In approaching these vast issues, it is crucial that open discussion and a focus on positive, achievable outcomes are maintained. The challenge remains clear: how to engage governments in a forward thinking dialogue.

Professor Lightfoot devised, planned and chaired an international conference at Chatham House in May, to assess the state of biomaterial security in the developing world and examine options for the future:

Safe and Secure Biomaterials; Matching Resources to Reality’ http://www.chathamhouse.org/events/view/182665

Chatham House defines itself as a forum for ‘Independent Thinking on International Affairs’ and such was the tone of the gathering – a chance to generate fresh thinking on a topic of huge contemporary importance.

Hosted by The Centre for Global Health Security and The International Security Research Unit, the conference brought together an international group of individuals and organizations in the field of biomaterial security, with wide expertise in government, academia, the private sector, civil society and funding agencies.

The meeting took the form of a round-table discussion, divided into four sessions, with individual speakers from a variety of backgrounds.

Three key themes emerged:

  1. The Need for Enhanced Collaboration – multisectorial participation and a global approach
  2. The Challenge to Think Differently – letting go of the attitude that developing countries are lagging behind and a smarter use of resources
  3. The Conundrum of Biosecurity – High tech facilities in the West versus resource poor environments

Everybody was in agreement: there is a need to help developing nations improve biosafety and biosecurity – not through high-tech, costly solutions (as in the West where strict bio-security measures have become the norm post 9/11 and the 2011 Anthrax letters) but through basic standards of containment, with a view to sustainability.

With this approach the potential for dual standards emerges – one process for rich countries and one for poor. As such, a change in attitude is required. It is not a question of reducing standards – but to focus on what really matters (effective containment) and import this mentality.

Presentations from across the globe proved to be illuminating and demonstrated that engineers and architects have devised ways of implementing solid security standards in a simple way. The conference concluded that the West needs to take notice and embrace a different way of thinking. It is clear that we can improve a hundred laboratories in several countries for the cost of one high-tech, unsustainable laboratory in one.

It also became apparent that there is a piece of the puzzle missing – support and funding from governments in developing nations for the good work that is already underway.

The Safe and Secure Biomaterials conference succeeded in bringing together a wide variety of international perspectives and resulted in a stimulating, purposeful examination of the issues. The output, soon to be published in a Chatham House Briefing Paper, is as follows:

  1. To Generate the potential for low resource biosafety and biosecurity initiatives
  2. To Influence international debate and policy formation
  3. To Incorporate the views of leading experts in the field

Professor Lightfoot concludes:

‘In the last two years, Biosafety professionals have been requesting improved solutions for laboratories in developing countries. In response, we have pulled together experts from all sectors and from across the globe and have been pleasantly surprised by the complete and shared agreement to move forwards. What is missing is an action plan, which will require input from the international biosafety societies and others to ensure committed and successful implementation – ultimately strong leadership will be required to pull everything together. As a first step, the Chatham House Briefing Paper will be sent out around the world. Watch this space.’

Chatham House have produced a podcast to accompany the event, featuring an interview with Professor Lightfoot and Patricia Lewis, available online:


The international journal of science, Nature, has published a story covering the conference:


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