Public health and biosecurity for a safer future

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If a cyber attack upends the global economy, effectively shutting down major cities like New York and putting millions of lives at risk, there is no doubt that governments and institutions around the world will respond by investing heavily in defense capabilities. It will improve its own cyber security, take new safeguards and collect data and information about future threats – just as many already do to respond to acts of cyber warfare.

And when it comes to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has the same devastating impact, the response is far less decisive. As new variables destroy the health and economic security of the world’s population, biosecurity measures, the early warning and surveillance techniques aimed at preventing the spread of infectious diseases, are not as multifaceted, comprehensive or formidable as the cyber security systems we use to protect the contain and mitigate activities of hackers.

But COVID-19 reminds us that public health and biosecurity are essential to national security. Like computer viruses, biological viruses attack living systems. They are everywhere; Although we may not always be able to escape it, we can study it and learn how to defend ourselves against it. New critical technologies are such as software patches that protect against cyber attacks; Mrna COVID-19 vaccines (the messenger RNA type of COVID-19 vaccines) are a good example of this. The scientists who developed it programmed cells to produce the “good” code, and instructed our bodies to neutralize the “bad” code of the virus.

COVID-19 vaccines show the potential of biotechnology to save lives, but vaccines are only one part of the actions we are taking to defend ourselves against future pandemics. We have the tools to predict the next pandemic and change the course of various threats to the health of individuals and societies. We must take advantage of this new era of public health technology, and build a biosecurity infrastructure that reflects our approach to cybersecurity in terms of investment and engagement.

To save as many lives as possible, governments must focus on investments in biosecurity systems and technology. The focus should be on scaling up surveillance systems to detect biosecurity threats before they become widespread.

It is necessary to mobilize more innovations. Achieving a safer future requires a strategic shift to frequent testing in non-traditional settings such as schools and airports, to detect infectious disease threats before they overwhelm us. Patients with common respiratory symptoms, few of whom were tested for infectious diseases in the pre-Covid era, should undergo routine tests to get a definitive diagnosis. Pathogen detectors must be affordable and widely available. By integrating this data, a “weather map” of global infectious diseases, conceived as a multi-layered, flexible system that evolves in response to a variety of threats to humanity, such as cybersecurity systems, will help cities, states and countries to be aware become of the threat potential.

Before the COVID-19 shock, lax governments and institutions did not invest in large-scale infectious disease surveillance systems. While COVID-19 remains the center of attention, there is now an alarming increase in monkeypox cases across several continents. We now understand the root causes of the increase in cases of acute hepatitis in children that have baffled medical experts. Another looming threat is the emergence of new strains of bird flu, and other viruses that mutate and adapt to infect humans more easily. We need to improve our ability to anticipate future outbreaks and understand where new variables will emerge. Most importantly, we must discover new pathogens before they become epidemics.

The end of the pandemic we are currently experiencing is far from over. In late May, a study published on the pre-release server MedRxiv indicated that the number of COVID-19 infections could be 30 times higher than reported. According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cases are about six times higher than they were at this time last year. This is mainly due to the emergence of new variables. This is of particular concern because current mRNA vaccines reduce the risk of hospitalization and death, but are less effective in preventing long-term Covid-19. Recent reports suggest that the prolonged illness may affect up to 20% of Covid patients, and its economic consequences will be dire, as evidenced by the inflation caused by the Corona virus that threatens the global economy and supply networks.

Public health leaders warn that the growing threat of infectious diseases, both natural and man-made, means we cannot afford the cycle of neglect – panic – neglect that has characterized the Covid-19 era. Pathogens are relentless in their ability to adapt, transform and thrive; She doesn’t care about “Coronavirus feeling tired” or our desire to return to the old normal. To prevent future pandemics, we must focus on adapting and surviving like viruses; We must address our weaknesses by funding technologies to help us identify and combat dangerous viruses, and develop new defenses against potential disease outbreaks.

Just as the dawn of the information age highlighted the need for cybersecurity, the rapid growth of biotechnology and the growing threat of pandemics should spur significant investments in biosecurity. It’s time to build our public health toolkit to combat future viral threats.

*Chief Manager of the Biosecurity Department at Ginkgo Bioworks.

** Professor of Public Health Practice and Director of the Master’s Program in Public Health at Northeastern University


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