On September 20th, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted a webinar titled “Building Capacities for Addressing Future Biological Threats.” The webinar featured a keynote address from Dr. David Christian Hassell, followed by a panel discussion with Dr. Pardis Sabeti and Dr. Akhila Kosaraju. The panelists covered the importance of bridging multiple communities and expertise backgrounds within the U.S. government’s interagency, as well as improving the collaboration and transparency between the public-private entities in the biodefense sector.
Dr. Hassell, Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response, focused his keynote on the importance of communication to better understand issues that arise at the convergence of biological and chemical risks. He pointed out that many may think of practitioners in the fields of biology and chemistry as naturally coalescing and working together, but this is not true in his experience. Rather, there are barriers that silo these disciplines within the U.S. government, which leads to less effective outcomes. In his remarks, Dr. Hassell recommended that stakeholders analyze how such barriers, including language within appropriations bills and reporting metrics, may impede collaboration between bioengineers, microbiologists, chemists, and computer scientists to address future biological threats.
Dr. Hassell also highlighted lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic to bring attention to the importance of transparent public health messaging. This included the importance of building capacity for biological threats in an adversarial environment with heightened levels, which would include learning from cybersecurity experts and building bridges with the chemical and biological expert communities. This knowledge-sharing and bridge-building to counter disinformation campaigns will require a coordinated effort that leverages expertise across the interagency, academia, and the private sector.
The webinar then transitioned into a panel discussion featuring Dr. Sabeti, Professor at the Center for Systems Biology at Harvard University, and Dr. Kosaraju, CEO of Phare Bio.
During her introductory remarks, Dr. Sabeti emphasized though the toll infectious diseases have taken on populations is significant, the tools needed to prevent outbreaks are foundational across the vast majority of pathogens. Additionally, she stressed that the accelerated pace of innovation within the biomedical and information technology sectors offers unique tools to combat infectious disease outbreaks—a pace so swift that it is difficult to predict which will be the next game-changing discovery.
For her introductory remarks, Dr. Kosarju highlighted the intentionality behind Phare Bio’s cross-disciplinary approach to tackling infectious disease issues with artificial intelligence and machine learning tools. She noted that one area that is deserving of more attention is the incentive structure behind medical countermeasures and early warning technologies, especially when it comes to small businesses with nascent technologies. One idea proposed is for the government to fund platform technologies in a manner that builds capacity, so if a novel outbreak were to hit, these technologies would only need slight modification to address the current pathogen.
The final segment of the webinar was a question and answer session that included questions from the event’s moderator, Dr. Yong-Bee Lim, and the audience. All three participants contributed their thoughts to the discussion, which included discussion on common critical themes such as ways to bridge the public and private sectors, as well as assessing the gaps and opportunities that currently exist in the biodefense arena. One example provided was BioMADE, the Manufacturing Innovation Institute sponsored by the Department of Defense that is conducting a breadth of scientific research while transitioning from government funding to increased private sector funding over time.
The webinar concluded with the panelists sharing their hopes for the future, which included discovering and leveraging transformative solutions from Bluetooth pandemic simulation exercises to expanding the resources given to public health communication and expanding talent pools to meet future needs in this space. CSR is committed to anticipating and addressing these challenges and looks forward to continuing these conversations with experts across the community of the caliber present during this webinar.
A recording of the webinar can be found on the CSR YouTube page here.
Links to publications mentioned by panelists during the webinar are provided below.
- The Lawfare Podcast’s Episode with Authors of the Nature Machine Intelligence Article, Sean Ekins and Filippa Lentzos, on Dual-Use and Artificial Intelligence
- The National Academies Report on Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology
- Dr. Sabeti’s Article on Altruism in Institutional Diagnostic Testing