Review: The UK Government’s Updated Biological Security Strategy

By Shannon L. Green and Skandan Ananthasekar 

The United Kingdom released its updated Biological Security Strategy on June 12, 2023. The UK has long had strong capabilities for addressing biological risks, yet more than ever its national strategy now recognizes the potential for biological threats to have catastrophic impacts and seeks to continue expanding on lessons from and capabilities developed during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also recognizes that future biological threats can be defeated through a combination of scientific innovation and government leadership and coordination with public, private, and international efforts.

Key Advances in the New Strategy 

The UK strategy signals important policy shifts to ensure the country achieves by 2030 resilience to the spectrum of biological threats and leadership in global health and innovation. The main focus of the strategy includes four pillars to counter biological threats – understand, prevent, detect, and respond, and the UK intends to do so through a comprehensive One Health approach. Such an approach is designed not only to recognize the link between humans, animals, plants, and the environment, but also the necessity of multi-sectoral collaboration at all levels. 

Our top highlights include the following.  

  • Biothreats Radar. The UK demonstrated its robust genomic surveillance capacity when it was the first to discover a new SARS-CoV-2 variant. Recognizing the importance of disease surveillance, the UK announced the launch of a new Centre for Pandemic Preparedness in the midst of the pandemic. The Biothreats Radar announced in the new strategy will expand the UK’s commitment to a comprehensive early warning system that will inform situational awareness and forecasting. The Biothreats Radar will integrate diverse sources of information to offer a fuller picture. Most importantly, the information will be linked to policymakers to allow for evidence-based decision making.
  • Deterrence of deliberate threats. The strategy makes explicit the risk from the deliberate misuse of biology by state and non-state actors. Deterrence of deliberate threats is highlighted as a primary form of mitigation in the strategy. This is in line with CSR’s recommendation that nations develop “deterrence by denial” strategies for deliberate biological threats. Such a strategy aims to deter malicious actors from carrying out an attack in the first place by reducing the odds of success of an attack. Toward this end, the UK plans to strengthen its microbial forensics capability which will help enable attribution, and expand the ability to hold malicious actors accountable. 
  • National Biosurveillance Network. While the UK already has national biosurveillance systems, this planned network will integrate various capabilities ranging from traditional surveillance to more nascent capabilities, such as wastewater and air testing. Importantly, the network signals an emphasis on pathogen-agnostic and One Health approaches to surveillance. The eventual goal is to rely on pathogen-agnostic methods to detect unknown pathogens in real-time. 
  • UK Biosecurity Leadership Council. Embedded within the strategy, the UK government plans to institutionalize one of the most important successes from the COVID-19 pandemic—public-private partnerships—through the creation of a UK Biosecurity Leadership Council. This council will establish a formal mechanism for the government to work with UK industry. 
  • Leadership and Governance. Underlying all four pillars is the need for top-level leadership that can prepare for pandemics during the inter-crisis times and encourage collaboration across agencies. As a result, the strategy proposes a lead minister that reports to parliament on the implementation of the strategy and a Biological Security Coordination Unit in the Cabinet Office.

Parallels to U.S. Strategy

The new UK strategy appears to closely align with the U.S. biodefense strategy, as outlined in National Security Memorandum-15 (NSM-15), and the U.S. National Biodefense Strategy and Implementation Plan

Early Warning. Both the U.S. and UK support dramatically expanded early warning and biosurveillance capabilities to detect threats in real time. The UK strategy builds upon the pathogen surveillance network started through the innovative partnership between the UK Health Security Agency and the U.S. Center for Forecasting and Outbreak Analytics (CFA) under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This partnership was established in June 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic with the aim of accelerating efforts to quell global pandemics and other emerging health risks. The UK’s new real-time Biothreats Radar appears to complement the CFA and the work begun through the partnership.

Public-private partnerships. In the U.S, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA), within the Administration for Strategic Preparedness and Response (ASPR), is primarily responsible for partnering with industry to advance the development of medical countermeasures. However, the U.S. lacks a mechanism for coordinating partnerships across the entire biosecurity enterprise. In contrast, the proposed UK Biosecurity Leadership Council seems to be a more holistic mechanism for competitively partnering with industry around a variety of biosecurity issues. As noted by the The Center for Long-Term Resilience (CLTR), a UK based think tank that strongly advocated for many of the commitments in the strategy, “a diverse range of expertise is required to successfully identify and manage the current and future risks associated with a rapidly transformative life sciences and biotechnology landscape…” 

100 day goal. Both the U.S. and UK have set the goal of authorizing vaccines and therapeutics within 100 days of a future pandemic threat being detected. To fulfill this goal, the UK strategy emphasizes working with industry to capitalize on biomanufacturing advances made during COVID-19 that will allow industry to rapidly pivot to address a future, not currently known pathogen, sometimes referred to as Disease X. 

Leadership. Both the U.S. and UK recognize the importance of permanent leadership to coordinate pandemic preparedness and biosecurity activities across the government. Leadership and governance goals outlined in the UK strategy are comparable to steps taken in the U.S. to stand up the Congressionally-mandated White House Office of Pandemic Preparedness and Response Policy

Exercises. Both the U.S. and UK recognize the imperative of conducting regular exercises at every level to ensure gap analysis and realistic planning. The UK strategy emphasizes regular national and international exercises to identify gaps and share lessons learned whereas NSM-15 requires annual exercises on a “biopreparedness health emergency.”

Prevent. Internationally, the U.K.’s framing is quite similar to that of the U.S., with a focus on strengthening global health by reducing the risk that states or terrorists are able to acquire and use biological weapons through the International Biological Security Programme. This UK program is similar to ongoing efforts by the U.S. through the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program. Additionally, both the UK and the U.S. embrace the necessity of working with partners and allies to strengthen the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention.

Resourcing. Notably, the strategy includes a laudable £1.5 billion ($1.9 billion U.S. dollars) per year investment to support implementation. CLTR’s statement on the UK strategy outlines five important recommendations to ensure delivery of the bold goals included in the strategy by 2030. Among the most important of CLTR’s recommendations is the need for “sustaining a level of investment commensurate with the seriousness of these risks, which will continue to demand significant financial resources if they are to be adequately addressed.” 

While many elements of the UK strategy reflect similar aspects of the U.S. biodefense strategy, the UK’s funding commitment is a notable area of divergence. The UK has committed £1.5 billion to support implementation of its strategy but the release of NSM-15 and the National Biodefense Strategy in the U.S. was not accompanied by dedicated funding to support implementation. 

As CSR has recommended, the U.S. government should continue to increase its bio investments to a “10+10 over 10 plan.” Such a plan would include $10 billion per year on average for ten years to deter and address bioweapons threats and $10 billion per year on average for ten years for global health security and pandemic preparedness. 

Conclusion – Next Steps 

CSR applauds the efforts of experts and leaders from across the UK government in shaping the Biological Security Strategy. The strategy is an important step in improving health security in the UK and internationally. There will now need to be sustained attention on implementation, in addition to political leaders fully backing what its nation’s top experts recommend.


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