One in 10 countries have adequate protection against a ‘catastrophic’ biological event

Fewer than one-in-10 countries have met global standards for securing killer germs, increasing risks of an accidental disease outbreak or bioterrorism, a campaign group has warned.

Just 19 countries completing a United Nations safety check have built or shown strong biosecurity safeguards. No countries meet the highest standard for biosecurity.

The lack of robust controls increases the chances of a “catastrophic” biological event, according to NTI, a campaign group tracking nuclear, biological and chemical threats.

A large scale disease outbreak is judged one of the most serious threats to both the UK and America.

While a naturally occurring disease outbreak such as the 1918 flu pandemic is considered the most likely risk, security experts are also worried about the possibility of bioterrorism, or an accidental release of a microorganism from a laboratory.

Lax standards were highlighted in 2015 when it was disclosed the Pentagon had both accidentally posted live anthrax samples to dozens of laboratories.

An NTI review of countries who have undertaken a World Health Organization voluntary check of their biosecurity found only 19 countries had developed or demonstrated security that meets global standards.

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“When countries do not have robust systems to protect their dangerous pathogens from being stolen, from being released as a result of a laboratory accident, or from being manipulated during research absent a risk assessment, they increase the potential for a catastrophic biological event,” said Dr Beth Cameron of NTI.

Dr Cameron, a former US national security council adviser on biosecurity, said global travel, urbanisation, terrorists’ interest in weapons of mass destruction and rapid advances in genetic engineering were all adding to the threat.

“If we don’t develop biosecurity and biosafety systems at pace with these threats, we run the risk for an accidental or intentional disease outbreak that could degrade the health, economic stability, and security of our global community,” she told the Telegraph.

So far 87 countries out of 196 have completed, and 75 have published, a WHO checklist to measure if nations can spot and deal with public health crises like disease outbreaks.

Part of the checklist is how well countries can identify and secure harmful micro organisms in laboratories, as well as safely overseeing potentially dangerous research into them.

Only 19 countries scored level three or four out of five in the assessment, showing they had developed or demonstrated capacity.

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“There are likely some countries that haven’t been assessed but which that do have capability in place – however, without the assessment we won’t know,” said Ms Cameron.

The UK has yet to complete the checklist, but the Department for Health said it had completed a pilot version in 2015 and been found to have “a strong baseline position”.

Rapid advances in biotechnology and genetic engineering mean experimenting on and manipulating dangerous germs is no longer the preserve of top laboratories.

Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former head of the British military’s joint chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear unit, said biosecurity was an area of “huge concern”.

Many countries only paid “lip service” to biosecurity, and terrorists have always looked at biological weapons as “the ultimate weapon to cause mass casualties and terrorise millions”, he said.

“The terrorist intent is definitely there and lax standards and unscrupulous or rogue governments or organisations may be willing to sell pathogens at very high prices,” he suggested.

“Having said that bio terror is not easy and there are effective medical counter measures for most bio weapons. But they are a massive psychological weapon and perfect for terrorists if they can pull it off.”

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