St Catharine’s College has established a world-class hub to provide cutting edge, evidence-based information about existing and emerging biological security risks and interventions.
The BioRISC initiative (Biosecurity Research Initiative at St Catharine’s) was officially launched during 2019, at an event at the Houses of Parliament. BioRISC responds to a crucial set of challenges that face us in the 21st Century. Providing cutting edge, evidence based research on biological risks is crucial. Download a brochure about the initiative.
BioRISC collaborates closely with the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), which focuses on global catastrophic threats including pandemics and ecological collapse.
The BioRISC Initiative uses an innovative combination of approaches to build, integrate, and synthesise evidence, across the different domains of biosecurity. Our methods include horizon scanning, fault tree analysis, mapping of intervention options, evidence synthesis and expert elicitation processes. These activities bring together leading scientific experts, technology developers and policy makers, to shape the biosecurity research agenda and ensure solutions are grounded in evidence.
By adopting a broad vision of biosecurity, we aim to identify commonalities between the different areas, for example in failure modes and key points of intervention, and promote learning across the different areas.
Our understanding of biosecurity encompasses the fields of conservation and environmental protection, protection of human, animal and plant health against naturally occurring biological threats, and accidental releases of / unintended consequences from novel organisms, as well as more traditional security concerns around the deliberate use of biological agents, scientific knowledge and related technologies for harmful purposes.
There are also benefits to considering biological security in a comprehensive manner, as actions in the different constituent domains can have implications in others – something clearly recognised in the 2018 UK Biological Security Strategy.
New Methods of Evidence Synthesis
A major aspect of our work has focused on developing new means of collating and synthesising evidence. Rather than the traditional approach to synthesising evidence in the form of analysis in an academic paper, we have collated evidence and built a tool that allows practitioners to perform an analysis tailored to their own specific circumstances. For example, they may only be interested in tests in their own country or continent, or they may only be interested in specific actions or outcomes. This work has resulted in a website and dynamic tool (www.metadataset.com) which we have described in a recent paper in the journal BMC Biology. We have used this tool to provide dynamic synthesis of invasive plant species and plan to expand this work to other aspects of biosecurity in the near future.
Managing Invasive Species
To address the risk posed by invasive plant species, we have worked to identify which types of management are most effective in managing their abundance. To do this, we have extracted data from >200 publications that have tested management interventions to control 10 major invasive plant species. We published the protocol for this work last year and we are currently working on a systematic review synthesising this evidence. Gorm Shackelford has also pioneered techniques that will allow machine learning to speed up the process of gathering evidence that we hope to apply to this topic in the future.
In addition, our team has also worked on setting priorities for invasive species management by the water industry (Gallardo & Aldridge 2020) and management of invasive bivalve species using biocides (Tang & Aldridge 2019).
Invasive species and emerging infectious diseases have much in common: both are linked with environmental degradation and global change, reach highest impacts in communities that have never been in contact with similar threats before, lacking the necessary defenses, and can debilitate their hosts making them more vulnerable to further disease. In a study published in BioScience, we reviewed these links and concluded that a closer collaboration between epidemiologists and invasion ecologists within a One Biosecurity framework would improve prediction, prevention, treatment, and mitigation of invasive species and infectious disease outbreaks, including pandemics (Vilà et al. 2021).
Development of Fault Trees
A set of fault trees are being developed, which provide information about critical failure points. These will provide the basis for additional processes such as expert elicitation to weight different pathways, mapping of existing intervention options, and gap analysis. Archetypal fault trees will be developed for the main areas of biosecurity, as well as more detailed examples of a representative range of real-world case studies. One of these examples is the spread of aquatic invasive species in the UK. This work is ongoing, but preliminary results from it suggest that reducing the risk of spread to the UK is the most effective way of reducing harmful invasions, followed by early action after an introduction occurs.
Priority Questions for Biosecurity
In 2019, we ran a workshop convening experts from biosecurity, virology, human and animal health, and conservation to identify the research questions that, if answered, would have the largest impact in allowing effective and coordinated progress in different disciplines of biosecurity. This has now resulted in an article in the journal PLOS One. Our paper proposes several prescient questions that have become pertinent due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Novel Practices in Biosecurity Governance
We helped run and fund a workshop on Novel Practices in Biosecurity Governance, led by Dr Sam Weiss Evans, resulting in the policy forum piece ‘Embrace Experimentation in Biosecurity Governance’ was published in Science (Evans et al. 2020), which received coverage from Science Daily, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Netherlands Biosecurity Bureau, among others. The article considers different existing governance ‘experiments’ in biosecurity and ways in which good practice can be shared. This article has helped to strengthen BioRISC’s links with networks of practitioners from industry, academia, and governance. For example, its suggested experimental approach to biosecurity governance is mentioned in a working paper submitted by the United States to this year’s Meeting of Experts for the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC/MSP/2020/MX.2/WP.1, pgh.16).
After organising a workshop of global experts we published the Bioengineering Horizon Scan’ in eLife (Kemp et al. 2020). This horizon scan highlights 20 emerging, impactful issues in bioengineering. It builds on the successful CSER ‘Transatlantic’ bioengineering horizon scan in 2016 by incorporating a larger diversity of experts, including several from developing countries, to create a truly global horizon scan. One of the highlighted topics of ‘Distributed Pharmaceutical Development and Manufacturing’ (within the likely time frame of 5-10 years) could be a critical development for addressing future pandemics. While the issue of ‘Genetically Engineered Phage Therapy’ (5-10 years) provides an uncertain, long-term potential alternative to antibiotics, and solution to the looming global public health crisis of antibiotic resistance.
Reinsurance for bioterrorism
Lord Des Browne has brokered conversations with Pool Reinsurance Company Limited (Pool Re) leading to a major conference in 2021, a public-private partnership set up to cover insured losses caused by acts of terrorism. Pool Re are particularly interested in how to insure losses associated with bioterrorism and biosecurity risks in general.
Our work on emerging diseases has been dominated by our response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, the BioRISC team along with researchers from 13 other institutions, carried out a ‘solution scan’ to identify options to reduce spread of COVID-19 while allowing for some degree of societal normality. This work generated widespread interest and was covered by >70 media outlets from >10 countries and was used by a number of countries for planning Covid strategies.
Stopping future pandemics
In April 2020, we launched a major global collaborative review of the possible pathways of zoonotic epidemics and ways to prevent such epidemics in the future. The work generated high levels of media interest.
Written evidence submitted to the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, Biosecurity and human health: preparing for emerging infectious diseases and bioweapons inquiry, BH0005, 9 September 2019, focusing on the role of academic and private sectors in supporting and informing policy and action (see here for more detail); and BH0007, 9 September 2019, focusing on international governance of biosecurity and human health (see here for more detail).
Written evidence submitted in January 2021 to the House of Lords Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning on improving risk assessment and planning (see here).
Catherine Rhodes gave Oral Evidence in February 2021 to the House of Lords Committee on Risk Assessment and Risk Planning, on UK Biosecurity (watch the video here).
Written response to DEFRA consultation: ‘Management measures for widely spread Invasive Alien Species (IAS) in England and Wales’ (September 2019 - see here for details of consultation). Our response highlighted the lack of specific management methods proposed by DEFRA and the need to gather evidence for more well-defined management interventions. We also gave detail of the work we are doing to provide evidence relating to management of the priority plant species that were the subject of the consultation.
Catherine Rhodes spoke with the BBC World Service in March 2020 as part of a programme on where the coronavirus came from and why these diseases aren't a one-off. Watch the video.
In July 2020 Belinda Gallardo and David Aldridge were invited to undertake the formal risk assessment of the invasive quagga mussel for the European Union. In August 2020 they collaborated on a review of management options for quagga mussels in the European Union, on behalf of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
In December 2019, David Aldridge took part in a UK horizon scan of invasive species with the potential to negatively impact UK biodiversity. Aldridge led the freshwater team of experts in this DEFRA-funded activity. The work will help to prioritise national monitoring schemes and the development of rapid response plans.
Over the past year, BioRISC member Des Browne has discussed issues relevant to the BioRISC agenda with ministers and official in various Government departments as well as through written and oral contributions in parliament:
- 17 October 2019 – Contribution to Queen’s Speech debate (see here for more detail).
- 4 June 2020 – Contribution to National Risk Register oral question (see here for more detail).
- 8 July 2020 – Contribution to EU: Xylella Fastidiosa oral question (see here for more detail).
- 20 July 2020 – Contribution to Aichi Biodiversity Target oral question (see here for more detail).
- 13 July 2020 – Biological pandemic insurance (see here for more detail)
- 22 June, 6 July, 9 July 2020 – National Risk Register and the absence of the Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingency Committee
Des Browne, supported by BioRISC colleagues, has also been involved in discussions relating to the setting up of an inquiry on Biosecurity by the Joint Committee on National Security Strategy.