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K-State Today

June 27, 2016

Security experts call for cooperation between veterinarians and international agencies on capacity building to reduce biological threats

Submitted by Joe Montgomery

A pair of U.K. and U.S. security experts called for greater cooperation between veterinarians and international agencies toward reducing biological threats and improving international security during a recent visit to the College of Veterinary Medicine at Kansas State University.

The experts, Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense and deputy coordinator for Ebola response at the U.S. Department of State, and David Elliott, a leader in cooperative threat reduction at Defense Science and Technology Laboratories, U.K. government, spoke about the relationship between global security and outbreaks of animal and zoonotic diseases. Weber, who had been a key player in dismantling the former USSR's bioweapons program, highlighted the potential use of animal pathogens and zoonotic agents — pathogens that can cause disease in humans as well as animals — as bioweapons should they fall into the wrong hands.

"All veterinarians are security people," Weber said. "We depend on them to keep us safe from infectious diseases of both humans and animals. I encourage veterinarians to think globally about their responsibilities which can make the world a safer place, and encourage emerging leaders in the veterinary profession to consider careers in improving global health security."

While addressing the potential use of animal pathogens by terrorists, Weber pointed out how cooperation and laboratory capacity building can limit access to these agents.

"In the case studies we have of terrorist groups seeking to develop biological weapons, the one technical hurdle they seem to fail at repeatedly is obtaining the pathogen — obtaining the starter culture," Weber said. "We have an opportunity to reduce the risk of terrorism by consolidating or reducing the number of laboratories that have Bacillus anthracis, or anthrax."

Elliott explained another way in which veterinary medicine can have a positive impact on global security.

"If you're in the veterinary sector, look at some of the good this sector can do," Elliott said. "For example, increasing productivity, helping people to manage healthier livestock — all of that tends to raise living standards. By projecting your expertise abroad, you can make a positive impact on people's lives, and that reduces the drivers of conflict and civil unrest."

Elliott also talked about the benefits of working with intergovernmental animal health agencies, the World Organization for Animal Health and the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. He highlighted that the sustainable strengthening of health services worldwide promotes benefits for society at the same time as reducing threats from pathogens whether they have a natural or unnatural origin.

Elliott listed several ways these agencies utilize veterinary experts for capacity building, including international twinning programs for veterinary colleges and laboratories, assessments of national veterinary services, veterinary infrastructure capacity building, and training in good emergency management practice for animal health and food related emergencies through the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization's Crisis Management Centre. He also emphasized the importance of the One Health initiative.

The Office of International Programs in the College of Veterinary Medicine sponsored the panel discussion.

"We invited these two guests to our campus to highlight that cooperation between the security and veterinary sectors can minimize all biological threats whether they have a natural or unnatural origin," said Keith Hamilton, executive director for the College of Veterinary Medicine's International Programs.

"In addition to highlighting the wealth of knowledge and capacity available at the College of Veterinary Medicine, which can support biological threat reduction activities, this was an excellent opportunity for our campus to engage and learn from a pair of individuals with firsthand knowledge and experience," said Tammy Beckham, dean of the College of Veterinary Medicine.

Weber served as assistant secretary of defense for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Defense Programs until October 2014. In this capacity, he focused on preventing, protecting against and responding to weapons of mass destruction and terrorism threats. He supported international efforts to eliminate Syrian and Libyan chemical weapons, and strengthen global health security. In October 2014 President Obama asked Weber to serve as Deputy Coordinator for the Ebola response at the U.S. Department of State.

Elliott has spent several years with the U.K.'s cooperative threat reduction program, working closely with his counterparts from the U.S. and Canada, and other countries in the G7 Global Partnership against weapons of mass destruction. He has been a key advocate of investing in animal and human health systems to reduce biological threats from all quarters, including natural, accidental and intentional releases. On the ground he has been responsible for establishing and managing a range of capacity building initiatives across North Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

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