Good morning, distinguished guests, international experts, and colleagues. I am so grateful to have this opportunity to speak to you today. I would like to express my gratitude to the Africa Global Emerging Pathogens Treatment Consortium for the kind invitation to speak at this conference.
As the Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, I lead three State Department bureaus: the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs; the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification and Compliance; and the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation. Throughout these bureaus, several programmatic offices lead the State Department’s weapons of mass destruction threat reduction and nonproliferation foreign assistance and capacity building programs.
A significant part of our mission is to confront, mitigate, and wherever possible prevent biological threats, which are evolving rapidly, especially with advancements in science and technology and increased globalization. Outbreaks caused by emerging infectious diseases, such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, monkeypox, and the Ebola virus disease outbreak in Uganda, illuminate the devastating effect infectious diseases have on community and population health.
We need to collectively prioritize preparedness, prevention, detection, and response efforts. We need to work through a multisectoral lens. And we need to consider lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now is the time to thoughtfully and deliberately integrate these lessons into regional, national, and global efforts to improve capacities and strengthen the global health security architecture. Strengthening global health security is instrumental in our collective effort to prevent, detect, and respond to biological threats and infectious disease outbreaks, regardless of whether they are naturally occurring, or accidently or deliberately spread.
Efforts on Mitigating Biological Threats in Africa
Over many years, the offices I oversee have swiftly and diligently worked with African partners from numerous sectors including national and local governments, bioscience communities, hospitals, and biosecurity stakeholders. Together, we have enhanced diagnostic and surveillance capabilities, and strengthened biosafety and biosecurity practices.
We have worked in partnership with our Nigerian colleagues to establish a One Health Technical Working Group, bringing together partners from ministries, academia, and research institutes. These efforts resulted in a priority zoonotic disease list and the National One Health Strategic Plan for the prevention and control of zoonotic diseases such as anthrax and brucellosis. During the last two years, we partnered for virtual trainings on disease surveillance and response to priority zoonotic diseases, including COVID-19.
Our ongoing efforts aim to expand community healthcare worker awareness of zoonotic diseases regionally. For example, we are developing biorisk management communication plans with partners in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Somalia, Tanzania, and Uganda. We understand the importance of a multisectoral approach to health security.
We are working with research communities to develop reporting mechanisms to law enforcement. Last, but certainly not least, we are working to build and strengthen our collective approach to key multilateral nonproliferation regimes, such as the Biological Weapons Convention, the Australia Group, and the UN Security Council Resolution 1540.
Strengthening Health Security in Africa
The United States remains committed to partnering with African countries to strengthen global health security. One of these great partnerships is the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, or PEPFAR, which has been working to end HIV/AIDS as a public health threat since its establishment in 2003.
PEPFAR has helped strengthen public health systems in over 55 countries, trained over 300,000 healthcare workers, and saved more than 21 million lives in the past 20 years, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.
Additionally, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic the United States has donated over 186 million vaccine doses to 44 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa in partnership with COVAX, the African Vaccine Acquisition Trust (AVAT), and the African Union. Demonstrating our commitment to global health security, we partner with 17 intensive support partner countries in Africa to strengthen countries’ technical capacities to include health workforce development, strengthening laboratory biosafety and biosecurity, real time data surveillance and reporting, and expanding national vaccine coverage.
Recognizing the impact of climate change across the African continent, we are working with our African partners to integrate a One Health approach in policymaking that recognizes the interconnection between the health of people, animals, and plants and their shared environment.
Another, newer important collaborative effort is being undertaken by the Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. Specifically, we support the Signature Initiative to Mitigate Deliberate Biological Threats in Africa in dialogue and collaboration with our African partners. In coordination with Africa CDC, we will support countries’ implementation of the biosafety and biosecurity legal framework.
We are also providing technical assistance for the development of national legislation targeted at the implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention. We believe these collaborative capacity building efforts are vital to strengthening biological security across Africa.
Diversity and Inclusion in Strengthening Health Security
From the local and community level to national and regional organizations, African women, in all their diversity, represent a critical role in responding to, preventing, and educating the global community on biological and health security threats. By partnering with women in the communities of Northern Kenya, we raised awareness of the importance of proper food handling and reduced the prevalence of brucellosis infection.
We did so by developing a radio program of interest to women from various local tribes. We also partnered with a local female government leader to speak directly to the women to raise awareness, including identification of infection symptoms and how to seek treatment. This example underscores how the empowerment of women directly impacts our global health security.
The collective efforts across the continent with international partners to mitigate biological threats already demonstrate the immense benefit of international cooperation. However, the pandemic and emerging disease outbreaks show us there is more work to be done to counter biological threats. Together, we need to think holistically through the lessons learned from our response and prevention efforts.
As the African and international bioscience community evolves and integrates new tools to prepare for the next outbreak, we need to strengthen security and safety in laboratories at the same time. We should proactively seek ways to quickly upscale laboratory diagnostics and disease surveillance capacities for rapid, coordinated responses. We should scale up local genomic sequencing capability and encourage timely and transparent information sharing to help guide the rapid development of vaccines and therapeutics.
We also need to optimize our systems to coordinate emergency public health and multisectoral responses to outbreaks. Reassessing national legislation and regulatory frameworks for public health emergencies and laboratory safety and security before the next pandemic is key for governments to quickly respond and mitigate biological threats.
Through forums like this conference, let us share the lessons we each have learned and make every effort to integrate best practices into our respective sectors and responsibilities.
The Way Forward
To paraphrase President Biden, an effective approach to strengthening global health security requires an all-of-government and all-of-society approach in an inclusive and equitable manner. Now more than ever before, we must strive to enhance our pandemic preparedness and strengthen biological threat mitigation tools to bolster global health security.
The United States is committed to achieving these goals through the recently released National Biodefense Strategy that aims to strengthen health security and prepare for all biological threats, regardless of origin, through close cooperation with our international partners.
Emerging infectious diseases and other biological threats will continue to threaten international security. However, working together to build and foster even stronger partnerships will enable us to be better prepared and we look forward to our continued cooperation. As stated by Secretary Blinken in his recent remarks in Pretoria, South Africa, “all of this collaboration is in our mutual interest because as the pandemic has demonstrated, as long as any of us are at risk, all of us are at risk”. Thank you.