‘Wicked Problems’ Probed During 3-Day Biodefense Workshop

What other workshop besides one dealing with biosecurity is likely to hand out bottles of hand sanitizer and ballpoint pens disguised as syringes filled with green fluid? (The rumor was the syringes were filled with zombie vaccine.)

The speakers at the summer workshop called “Pandemics, Bioterrorism, and Global Health Security: From Anthrax to Zika” addressed all manner of “wicked problems” from foodborne outbreaks to misguided Ebola responses to “cyberbiosecurity.” The three-day workshop was hosted in July by the Biodefense Graduate Program at the Schar School of Policy and Government in Arlington, Va. 

Saskia Popescu, a PhD student and graduate research assistant in the program, reported that attendees included representatives from other universities and public agencies—including the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Defense, Sandia National Lab, and the Pentagon Force Protection Agency—and private firms such as Merrick & Company and Emergent Biosolutions.

Highlights included:

  • MIT’s Sanford Weiner addressed the challenges facing organizations confronting complex biological threats with limited information, high degrees of scientific uncertainty, and a dynamic political environment.
  • David Franz, previously of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases and the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, reviewed the "dual-use dilemma" that has characterized biotechnology throughout history and how to balance security and innovation in light of new advances in synthetic biology and genome editing.
  • Industry veteran Robert House provided a technical account of how medical countermeasures (MCM) are developed and the opportunities and obstacles for innovation. He also provided a fascinating review of the most promising disruptive technologies in the field.
  • Virologist and Biodefense Program adjunct professor, Andy Kilianski, discussed the importance of biosurveillance, and the technical and bureaucratic barriers to information sharing. He also led a rousing discussion regarding wearable technologies, including smart textiles, tattoos, keychains, and the struggle with their utility against potential for data-misuse.
  • Supervisory Special Agent Edward You from the Federal Bureau of Investigation discussed the range of potential risks to the life sciences research enterprise—from insiders, terrorists, hackers, and spies—and the role of the FBI's weapons of mass destruction coordinators preventing and detecting biocrimes.
  • Filovirus expert Jens Kuhn discussed the importance of scientifically based risk assessments of biological threats such as Ebola for calibrating public health preparedness and response activities. Kuhns provided not only a thorough understanding of the virus, but also highlighted the many myths and misperceptions surrounding Ebola that complicate risk assessment and preparedness.
  • The workshop closed with a presentation and engaging discussion led by Biodefense Program director and Schar School professor Gregory Koblentz on why biosecurity is such a wicked problem and how greater collaboration among stakeholders is needed to develop effective biosecurity policies.

See Popescu’s full account at the Global Biodefense website.