Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats in Africa
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and other recent large-scale disease outbreaks in Africa, including the Ebola viral outbreaks of West Africa (2014-15) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (2018-20), have underscored that infectious disease outbreaks can have devastating, whole-of-society impacts. While focus must remain on ending the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a no less urgent requirement for the wider international community to come together with partners in Africa to take bold, coordinated action to build sustainable health security capacities, thereby better enabling countries to prevent, detect, and respond to future infectious disease threats to humans and animals, whether natural, accidental or deliberate in origin.
Member countries of the Global Partnership have a strong tradition of working with partner countries and organizations in Africa to strengthen capacities to prevent detect and respond to biological threats. While the GP is an international security initiative with a mandate to prevent terrorists and states of proliferation concern from acquiring and using biological and other weapons/materials of mass destruction, it has a proven track record of working at the “health-security interface” with human and animal health partners to prevent, detect and respond to deliberate threats posed by high-consequence pathogens.
In this context, the Global Partnership has developed and is implementing a Signature Initiative to Mitigate Deliberate Biological Threats in Africa. The aim of the initiative, which is being developed and delivered in the closest collaboration with the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) and other African partners, is to reduce bio-threats through the aligned activities of GP and African countries working towards the same goals. The GP recognizes that this type of collective effort (which was highly successful in other fields during the GP’s first decade) is important as the scope and diversity of biological threats exceeds the ability of any one country to counter them. Aligned activities help to avoid unnecessary redundancy, leverage respective strengths and can produce outcomes that are greater and more impactful than can be achieved by lone countries through individual projects.
To inform development of the Signature Initiative and ensure ownership and early engagement by African partners, a virtual Wilton Park conference was held in November 2020. The Wilton Park meeting was attended by GP members, relevant international organisations and representatives of the Africa CDC and numerous other African partners. While participants acknowledged the complexity, diversity and challenges associated with mitigating biological threats in Africa, there was broad agreement that the Signature Initiative represents the right initiative, with the right partners at the right time. There was also general agreement on the nature and type of work that could be implemented under the Initiative.
In close consultation with Africa CDC and other external stakeholders, four inter-connected priority areas have been identified for collective action through the Signature Initiative: i) biosafety and biosecurity; ii) national frameworks; iii) surveillance and epidemic intelligence; and iv) non-proliferation. Sub-working groups have been established to develop the thinking and identify specific activities, projects and/or programs of work to deliver these thematic priorities. Indicative of the importance of the GP’s collaborative relationship with African partners, the GP and Africa CDC have entered into new informal Dialogue Partnership, with the aim of advancing their shared objective of strengthening health-security and mitigating biological threats in Africa.
In support of the Signature Initiative, Africa CDC, the Governments of Canada and the United Kingdom, and representatives of the Government of South Africa convened a high-level virtual conference on Engaging Public Representatives in Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness (8-12 November 2021). This conference focused on South Africa, a continental leader on health-security and biosecurity, and engaged public representatives, parliamentarians, and decision-makers in Africa, whose support is essential for the enactment of legislation/regulations and the appropriation of adequate resourcing for sustainable biosafety and biosecurity.
During the conference’s opening session (video available here), the importance of accelerated efforts to strengthen biosecurity and improve capacities in Africa to mitigate all manner of biological threats (whether deliberate, accidental or deliberate) was highlighted by a range of distinguished participants, including the Honourable Joseph Phaahla (MP and Minister of Health. South Africa), Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus Adhanom (Director General, WHO), Dr. Monique Eloit (Director General, OIE), Mr. Máximo Torero (Chief Economist and Assistant DG, FAO) and Sir Jeremy Farrar (Wellcome Trust).
Throughout the week-long conference there was sustained emphasis on the need for coordinated action. In this regard, a set of Six Principles for Strengthening Biological Security in Africa were issued, to guide Signature Initiative efforts to build impactful and sustainable biosecurity, biosafety and biological risk management capabilities in and for Africa.
In 2022, the German Presidency of the Global Partnership prioritized further development and practical implementation of the Signature Initiative. In this regard, GP partners reiterated their commitment to the Signature Initiative in their Declaration on Biological Security (October 2022) and pledged to “intensify our work based on the Initiative’s four pillars”. Throughout 2022 significant progress was made, thanks in part to important conferences held on Turning Commitments into Action (United Kingdom, April 2022) and Operationalizing the Signature Initiative (South Africa, November 2022). These events were underpinned by significant work and accomplishments achieved through the Initiative’s 4 sub-working groups, each of which was ably co-chaired by a GP and African representative. Many new projects and collaborations were finalized in 2022 and supported by GP partners, including on Sustainable Biosecurity and Biosafety in Africa (implemented by Africa CDC), Establishment of a Regional Centre of Excellence for Biosafety and Biosecurity in Southern Africa (led by South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases), development of an African Health-Security Partnership to Strengthen Disease Surveillance and Epidemic Intelligence (a collaboration between Africa CDC and WHO) and Universalization and Effective Implementation of the BTWC in Africa (through the BTWC Implementation Support Unit).
While important progress has been made, much more is required - more partners, more investments, more collaborations and more champions – to meaningfully strengthen biosecurity and mitigate biological threats in Africa. Interested in contributing? Please contact GlobalPartnershipWMD@gmail.com.
Signature Initiative Updates