Sandia LabNews

Bio threats call for new global collaboration model

Sandia’s Ren Salerno, global expert on biological threat reduction, gestures before an enlarged illustration of molecules that have come to signify biological threats. Ren is championing efforts to gain greater recognition for Sandia’s Countering Biological Threats programs, which provide the science, technology, and technical policy solutions for confronting on a global scale the entire lifecycle of a biological threat. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Sandia Senior Manager Ren Salerno (6820) took the podium during a recent biosecurity conference to begin writing a new chapter on global collaboration initiatives aimed at solving US national security challenges, particularly those posed by biological threats.

Ren unveiled a new collaboration model at Biosecurity 2011, a series of targeted breakout sessions staged during June’s 2011 BIO International Convention in Washington, D.C. The new approach would evolve many existing relationships that Sandia has with life sciences organizations worldwide into more strategic and technical development initiatives.

“Our national security used to be our problem alone, and — internationally — it was up to us to create unilateral arrangements or bilateral agreements to extend our resources into other countries and to work with them to implement our solutions,” Ren says. “But the threats today are increasing and becoming more complex as dual-use materials, technologies, and expertise propagate all over the world. We’re moving into an era of collaboration that must foster new solutions, new stakeholders and ultimately, new partners who will help us defend our security by strengthening their own.”

New ‘Countering Biological Threats’

During his presentation, Ren emphasized how targeted collaborations aimed at building solutions appropriate to local environments will become integral to mitigating biological threats. The seeds for such an approach have already been sown through Sandia’s International Biological Threat Reduction (IBTR) activities. The IBTR program is the international component of what Sandia recently began calling its Countering Biological Threats (CBT) programs.

The CBT programs comprise multiple capabilities and programs from throughout the Labs that combined confront all of the elements of the biological threat lifecycle — from awareness to prevention, preparedness to detection, and response to recovery. By grouping this collection under a single umbrella, Sandia can better illustrate its broad reach across the entire biological threat spectrum.

Leading the charge to strengthen Sandia’s identity in this area is Ren, who heads Cooperative Threat Reduction efforts within Global Security, a major component of the International, Homeland, and Nuclear Security strategic management unit. Senior Manager Duane Lindner (8120), who is the program manager for Sandia’s Chem/Bio National Security program, is also playing a key role in establishing greater recognition for Sandia’s CBT programs.

“We’ve developed a large number of technologies and tools for disease surveillance, agent detection, response, and recovery but primarily for domestic use,” says Duane. “Now we’ve begun to examine, and our sponsors have too, how to apply those capabilities to meet needs internationally. That means working very closely with public health officials in other nations and local scientific communities on the kinds of solutions that will function with their infrastructures and resources.”

Expanding threats

The world’s rapidly expanding population, especially in the developing world, is driving the rising demand for dual-use technologies, materials, and expertise to meet basic needs, Ren says, adding that this trend has created a more complex and challenging threat spectrum for national security. 

“We increasingly rely on dual-use technologies to meet our basic energy, food, and public health needs,” Ren says, “and with this mass proliferation of dangerous and potentially dangerous materials comes the dramatic increase in the potential that these materials could be used — accidentally or intentionally — to harm us.”

The life sciences, in particular, have experienced tremendous growth as developing nations look to advanced biotechnology, including genetic engineering and synthetic biology, to produce solutions for a range of challenges, from public health to energy to agriculture. The across-the-board expansion of knowledge, materials, and equipment worldwide means more life scientists are now working in more locations with more deadly, and potentially dangerous, materials that are simpler to manipulate using basic know-how and equipment.

The National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats, released in late 2009, recognized the new challenges that expanding life sciences pose to national security. The strategy document stated: “Advances within the life sciences hold extraordinary potential for beneficial progress, but they also can empower those who would use biological agents for ill purpose.”

This point was raised earlier in World at Risk, a 2008 congressional report on weapons of mass destruction and the terrorist threat, which stated more pointedly: “…the United States should be less concerned that terrorists will become biologists and far more concerned that biologists will become terrorists. . . . [T]errorists are trying to upgrade their capabilities and could do so by recruiting skilled scientists.”

The national strategy called for greater international collaboration on the issue on a number of levels. A core element of the interactions with other nations will be building the technical and intellectual capacity of professionals in specific regions so they better understand the risks, Ren says.

The next step, he adds, is working with them to develop solutions that best suit their communities. Matching solutions to local environments, Ren points out, is crucial given that developing world resources and infrastructures typically couldn’t support the kinds of solutions used in the US even if it were cost effective and possible to export them.

“We can’t just roll out all across the globe the kinds of technologies and systems we use here in the US,” Ren says. “The new model for technical collaboration means helping to develop the knowledge and the technical solutions locally.”

Seeds sown in Iraq

The impetus of this emerging new model of international engagement was a series of relationships that Sandia helped create between various US government agencies and a range of life sciences organizations, from private companies to public health laboratories, in a number of developing nations. The International Biological Threat Reduction program creates and maintains technical relationships with individuals who are working in life sciences facilities. A primary goal is to assist them in their efforts to operate safely and securely but also to help foster responsible attitudes about the use of life sciences and the importance of protecting dual-use materials, technologies, and expertise.

The IBTR program, with sponsorship from the US State Department, is working with one vaccine manufacturer in Iraq, for example, to adopt new business goals and become a local supplier of much-needed pharmaceuticals and vaccines for a company based in Europe. Bottling and distributing pharmaceuticals and vaccines does not require the kinds of equipment that have a high potential for misuse, and the business model would strengthen the enterprise, helping raise salaries for scientists and making the company a stronger contributor to the community.

“The most vulnerable dual-use resource there was the people, who had managed to achieve some impressive results making vaccines with some really dated and somewhat shoddy equipment,” says Melissa Finley (6822), the project’s principal investigator. But upgrading and expanding the company’s equipment to help make it a more productive vaccine manufacturer carried significant national security risks for Iraq, the region, and the US, Melissa says, because the apparatus can also be used to propagate and manipulate dangerous pathogens.

“We are in a unique and invaluable position to understand the technological issues, physical security needs, public health challenges, and national security risks and weigh them all when making decisions about how to approach specific programs,” Melissa says. “We also go a step further by working as partners with the people who run the organizations we’re working with, whether they’re a private company in a very vulnerable region or a government with public health resources.”

Melissa adds that the Iraqi company leadership is enthusiastic about the new opportunity Sandia is helping develop. “They’re savvy business people. They understand the opportunity,” she says. “And distributing vaccines in a part of the world where the pharmaceutical giants are reluctant to expand directly will dramatically improve the public and animal health of the community. They understand this as well and it’s an important element to what they hope to achieve.” 

The next phase of global collaboration is to leverage this kind of partnership with a broader scientific community for broader purposes, Ren says.

“The next step in evolving this engagement model is to lend our technical expertise across the biological threat spectrum to partner with organizations and build a range of low-cost, easy-to-use, easy-to-sustain solutions that meet diverse needs,” Ren says. “Because of our global relationships and our technical and operational capabilities, Sandia is well-positioned to provide the support, the expertise, and the guidance to help create new solutions and partners that strengthen global security objectives.”