Thursday, 1st October 2020 • Paul Rimmer & Lt Gen (Retd) Martin Bricknell
While governments around the world are still battling the coronavirus pandemic – and hopefully learning lessons while doing so – we should nevertheless take the opportunity to lift our eyes from today’s bio-security crisis and think about how we might better prepare for the next one.
Because there is no doubt that there will be another crisis, arising from either a new or existing disease, or from the well-known risks around antimicrobial resistance, where drugs are no longer effective in treating infections caused by micro-organisms such as viruses, bacteria or parasites. Experience shows that governments also need to carefully consider the national security implications of such a crisis.
TODAY’S CRISIS IS NOT A SURPRISE...
What is remarkable about COVID-19 is that a bio- security risk should not have come as a surprise. Most governments were already aware of the potential for health threats to be a significant risk to national security. HIV, BSE, Foot-and-Mouth, SARS, Ebola, and Zika had in very recent times prominently highlighted the risks. Just one example is that the very first edition of the UK’s National Risk Register published in 2008 placed pandemic influenza at the top of its list of “high consequence risks facing the United Kingdom.” The 2017 edition of the same document, now published as the UK’s National Risk Register of Civil Emergencies, still placed pandemic flu at the top of its list of ‘Hazards, diseases, accidents and societal risks.’ However, today we can see that many governments had not thought adequately about the national security and economic implications of such a risk, nor adjusted their systems for the detection and identification of health threats to inform their national security decision-making process, nor invested appropriately to mitigate this threat in proportion to the perceived risk.
The inability to mitigate the threat, and the consequent lack of stockpiled personal protective equipment, protected critical capabilities, and established detect-test-trace-track systems, has come to the fore and become a wearily familiar theme. However, of at least equal importance is the lack of appreciation of the national security and economic implications of a pandemic, and the absence of the right measures to detect early, and then control any outbreak. This all simply reinforces the impression that administrations respond well in a crisis, but don’t prepare well beforehand – the old adage that people enjoy firefighting but not fire prevention.
IT’S ALL ABOUT FUSION...AND PARALLEL THINKING
So what can be done? At one level, it could be simply about ensuring that governments and others have robust risk processes in place, not simply to identify risks, but to prepare appropriately for them, including internal honesty about balance of investment choices. However, too often governments work in silos, such that even with many ‘traditional’ national security issues, such as military intervention, counter-terrorism or humanitarian relief operations, the relatively joined-up cross-government community sometimes struggles to work well in advance of any problem; again, it is good at managing the current crisis but not so good at actively preparing and mitigating the next possible crisis. Moreover, this challenge is exacerbated when more unfamiliar sectors and disciplines are also brought to bear, and this is the case with biosecurity. To deal with a pandemic, there is a critical need to bring together experience across the intelligence, security and public health sectors to analyse, plan and respond effectively to health threats. Many of those in these sectors may not be familiar with each other, they probably work on different IT systems and hence most will not be able to share information across all levels of intelligence classifications – which may be critical in determining whether an incident is a natural hazard that is being openly reported, or perhaps something more malicious.
Those national security threats could include post- event misinformation to secure advantage (or minimise disadvantage), deliberate measures to steal information (such as vaccine research or preventative measures), or deliberate conflict to take advantage of an adversary caught off guard and with a focus elsewhere. Thus the need for parallel strategic thinking – what are we seeing, what might it mean from a more malicious perspective, and what might others do to secure advantage? – while at the same time dealing with the current crisis. So, this is not simply about managing a bio-security risk, but about taking a wider perspective to recognise that preparing for and then managing such a crisis should be regarded as an important contribution to broader national resilience.
A critical element, therefore, is the importance of ‘fusion’ - breaking down stovepipes and bringing together that varied expertise. In practice that means the application of the intelligence discipline with a range of scientific disciplines. Intelligence is guided by a structured sequence, known as the ‘intelligence cycle’, to ensure that the right information is collected, turned into a useful product and sent to those who need it. This involves central direction of collection, effective processing and analysis and crucially, dissemination of information to the right customers across that varied terrain. It also means drawing on a range of skillsets, familiar to defence/military intelligence organisations, including collection of ‘open source’ material, (ie information that is in the public domain), analysis and geospatial expertise (to provide mapping etc). In the scientific domain, this fusion requires disciplines including primary research, public health, clinical medicine, modelling, bibliometrics (the analysis of scientific research papers), behavioural sciences etc. Finally, it is important to ensure that challenge is built in, to avoid the risk of institutional bias – which can be difficult when you are testing the conclusions of deep technical experts! The product of this fusion is an assessment of risk to inform decision-making, not a test of scientific probability. The key role of such a group is to be the provider of the single, authoritative information picture to decision-makers, whether at national, regional or local level.
THE NEED FOR CROSS-GOVERNMENT LEADERSHIP
That may all sound like a forbidding proposition, but it is feasible. The key is to identify the right stakeholders and to create an environment in which they can come together and understand what each can contribute. A multi-disciplinary team, comprising intelligence and health officials, could act as the catalyst to support the analysis and planning preparations necessary to respond effectively to bio-security threats. Bringing together such a group undoubtedly has its challenges, whether cultural, technical (IT again...) or one of physical location, but it can be done – witness the UK’s rapid creation of a Joint Biosecurity Centre in May 2020, charged with bringing “together the UK’s leading data analysis and epidemiological expertise with the aim of ensuring that outbreaks of coronavirus are detected and brought under control quickly.” The trick is to do it before the crisis arrives, and to do that effectively requires an understanding of the intelligence and medical/scientific domains and what each can contribute, with clear leadership and direction from across both. Oh yes, and get them together before the crisis and exercise, exercise, exercise...