Leaks and spills: Biorisk management during global crisis

Enya O’Connell-Hussey is the communications officer for PREPARED

Dr Johannes Rath is the International Biorisk Management Advisor for the European Commission, UN, and OSCE

Have you ever played the glitter game? It’s a simple concept — give a child a tub of open glitter, let them dip their hands in it, and set them loose for a few hours. At the end, ask them to find all the places the glitter has spread, and watch all the glitter disappear when they wash their hands. It is an easy way to teach children about the spread of pathogens. 

Now imagine vats of glitter across the world, stored on shelves with no lid, left open on windowsills and stuck under rocks. All it takes is a careless kick or a buckled shelf in a moment of chaos to knock it across rooms, clothes, shoes, into the car ride home, onto a family member’s jacket. One little speck is all it takes to start an outbreak of disease that can spread all over the world.


Image by Nabin Mewahang from Pixabay


Taking steps to reduce the risk of diseases emerging is called biorisk management. Biorisks are the dangers of handling those biological agents that pose a threat to human, animal or plant health. Prior to 2019, these concepts were relatively obscure in the public eye, relegated to the concerns of government departments and research bodies (and maybe the occasional sci-fi movie). However, much like epidemiology, vaccine development and virology, COVID-19 brought a massive surge in public interest towards biorisk management and biosafety. 

In his first report for the PREPARED project, Dr Johannes Rath — International Biorisk Management Advisor for the European Commission, UN, and OSCE — lays out an introduction to biorisk management, and explores the particular challenges of biorisk in a crisis. Whilst the public memory of COVID-19 might be beginning to fade, it was far from the first or last global crisis. If there was ever a case study for biorisk management, it was those three years after the first covid-cough in 2019.

A biorisk can be the cause of a sudden crisis, or an unintentional side effect of an existing crisis that breaks down health and sanitation infrastructure. Biorisks are broadly separated into four categories: naturally occurring infectious diseases, lab accidents, bioterrorism and the unintended consequences of advances in biotechnology like genetic engineering. Although these sound like something out of a thriller movie, they are kept in check by everyday routines— like using personal protective equipment, treating wastewater and taking inventory in laboratories.  An external crisis can quickly threaten any of these everyday routines. The deadliest modern outbreak of cholera, for example, happened in Yemen during the ongoing civil war, as was the cholera outbreak in Haiti a result of the 2011 earthquake.  

Dr Rath identifies eight key areas for biorisk management that are relevant to the COVID-19 crisis, ranging from the handling of samples for diagnosing patients, to treating patients, themselves, to sharing resources and information and allocating the proper equipment, staff and infrastructure to contain a virus effectively. 

COVID-19 emerged into a world that already couldn’t hold up a lot of these tenants — think of the shortage and hoarding and scramble for simple PPE in the first few months of the pandemic, or the diplomatic spats over travel restrictions and investigations into the origin of the virus. 

So how do we do better, knowing that another crisis is inevitable? The report details some practical steps, like standardising lab protocols across the world and encouraging transparent cooperation in surveillance networks for infectious diseases. PREPARED is contributing with our training material and ethics and integrity frameworks for research in a global crisis. 

But, this is a question that can’t be answered by one solution alone. A global risk needs a global response.


Read the full report by Dr Rath: