Bio-Safety Level 3 lab at the Institute Pasteur in Morocco

Bio-Safety Level 3 lab at the Institute Pasteur in Morocco

Developing a biosecurity culture in MENA countries

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The objectives of UN Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 1540 (2004) are crucial for ensuring that a strong regime is put into place to prevent non-state actors from using biological materials to threaten international peace and security. However, challenges to legal implementation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and regulation of biological materials vary regionally. Jordan and most countries of the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region are signatories of the BTWC; they are also bound by UNSCR 1540. In the MENA region, there is some movement towards a more robust biosecurity regulatory environment, but the progress is slow and uneven. In addition, and in order to fulfill the requirements set forth in these international legal instruments, there is a necessity for the region to develop its national experience, expertise, and infrastructure. However, there are numerous ways to combine the various elements of biosecurity into a successful biosecurity framework. Each country proceeds from a different starting point measured by current practice, needs and demands, culture, the legislative environment, and levels of resources and facilities.

The objective of this article is to summarize the biosecurity-related projects in the Middle East, and their contribution to the ongoing construction of a global network committed to ensuring that biological materials and technology are only used for peaceful purposes. Thus, these efforts will advance resolution 1540 while developing a biosecurity culture in MENA countries.

The role of nongovernmental organizations and other interested observers—civil society—has long been neglected by governments in the quest for a world secure from the threat of biological weapons or bioterrorism. New trends illustrate a greater appreciation of the need for a cooperative partnership. Nevertheless, because of the unique political and geostrategic circumstances of the region, civil institutions in the MENA region have extensive firsthand experience in dealing with arms control and nonproliferation issues. Thus, the article begins by describing a task force that convened between 2010-2012 under the auspices of track II engagement to discuss the technical parameters of implementing a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone (WMDFZ) in the MENA region. The task force was composed of policy and technical experts from throughout the region, acting in their private capacity, in addition to facilitators and observers from Europe and the United States. The group elected for an initial focus on the dimensions of a WMDFZ specific to biological weapons (BW). This was an area which—by comparison to other WMD issues—offered the fewest political obstacles to constructive discussion. The article will attempt to present an overview of some of the issues at play today in the biosecurity dialogue.

The findings of the “bioengagement” program conducted by the Center for Science, Technology, and Security Policy (CSTSP) in the broader Middle East and North Africa (BMENA, including Afghanistan and Pakistan) are also reported. The program focused on building trust and partnerships between scientists from the United States and BMENA countries and promoting safe, ethical, and secure life sciences research.

Many of the projects carried out under the EU chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear (CBRN) Centers of Excellence (CoE) Initiative relate directly to obligations set forth in UNSCR 1540. By prosecuting the CBRN CoE Initiative, the European Union and the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI) help states meet their international obligations. As a result of the ongoing activities of the EU CBRN CoE Initiative in the Middle East, twelve projects addressing countries’ needs were launched in 2013. The article presents an overview of these projects.

The article also highlights the main achievements of the Biosafety and Biosecurity International Consortium (BBIC), a network set up to exploit the extraordinary advances being made in biotechnology in order to bring the benefits to communities in the MENA region and to manage biological risks regardless of their origin. The BBIC process thus enables the countries of the region to identify the biological risks to which they are exposed and mitigate them through the development of national and regional biosafety and biosecurity strategies underpinned by legislative, human, and physical infrastructure, national preparedness, and contingency planning. Main activities related to biosafety and biosecurity in MENA countries are presented by the end of this article.

Specific lessons learned from the abovementioned projects, networks, and initiatives are described in the article. Heeding these lessons will provide a platform for facing current challenges to the establishment of regional biosecurity. The article concludes with suggestions for next steps that can be taken to promote building healthier and more secure communities in the MENA region, and for the role scientists, regional champions, and governments have to play in this important, challenging task.

Track II Technical Discussions on the Biological Weapons Dimensions of Implementing a WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East and North Africa1

Bio-Safety Level 3 lab at the National Institute of Health in PakistanIn 2010, a task force was convened under the auspices of track II engagement to discuss the technical parameters of implementing a WMDFZ in the MENA region. While the goal of establishing a zone is shared in principle by all governments in the region—as well as the broader international community—political and strategic realities continue to make achievement of that goal elusive. Recognizing these high-level obstacles, the task force was formed to explore more specific technical challenges that might emerge under potential WMDFZ implementation scenarios—“technical” being interpreted broadly to include the various technological, scientific, and organizational elements that might go into formation of a zone.

The task force was composed of policy and technical experts from throughout the region, acting in their private capacity, in addition to facilitators and observers from Europe and the United States. Early meetings included subject-matter-expert presentations and discussion on the fundamentals of biological weapons, arms control under the BTWC, the role of confidence-building measures in assessing BTWC compliance, and the responsibilities of the scientific community in controlling BW-relevant materials, technology, and expertise. Having established a common baseline of understanding, participants subsequently presented and discussed regional perspectives on BW, including policy, threat perceptions, and prospects for cooperation. Recognizing common ground, the task force—and specifically a subgroup of life-sciences experts—explored possible foundations for a regional framework for addressing BW threats, as well as opportunities for near-term confidence-building and cooperation.

The task-force discussions suggested agreement on certain common principles or pillars that should support a zone free of BW, regardless of the mode of implementing such a zone. These include:

  • Prevention of the acquisition or use of BW by malevolent actors
  • Detection of outbreaks of infectious disease in the region, including those that could potentially result from acts of bioterrorism
  • Response and mitigation in the event of an attack using BW

Each of these pillars should additionally be supported by cross-cutting foundations of awareness and general education across regional stakeholder communities (public, private, and governmental). It was the sense of the task force that these three pillars should serve as guiding foundations for near-term confidence-building and cooperation on addressing BW threats.

Confidence-building2 on each pillar would include regional exchanges of information on relevant national legislation, policies, best practices, and technical approaches currently implemented in the countries of the region. Such exchanges would begin at the basic level of orientation seminars. As confidence is built and collaborative relationships developed, exchanges can advance to training, cooperative implementation, and possibly even integrated capacities for addressing biological threats. The task force developed topical ideas for confidence-building activities under each pillar, with over twenty proposed activities in total.

Importantly, none of the proposed activities would necessarily require binding political commitments. Nor should they impose unnecessary burdens on legitimate bioscience activities. Many of the proposed activities, if implemented, could also help countries realize additional benefits in terms of capacity to manage biological risks and detect and respond to infectious disease outbreaks.

The Middle East presents a complex political environment for controlling BW. However, the task force demonstrated that common ground can be found for productive exchange and cooperation.

Future Opportunities for U.S.-BMENA Cooperative Bioengagement3

The program focused on scientific engagement to counter biological threats. It recognized the important role that scientists could play in preventing and responding to biological risks and threats. The activities of the program included cooperative threat reduction and cooperative engagement to identify new opportunities and approaches for future engagement in the BMENA region.

The challenges that the bioengagement programs face were identified. They include limited funding, inadequate means to evaluate program success, lack of sustainability of programs, and lack of coordination among funding agencies.

Funding, evaluation measures, and sustainability of programs are interconnected and lead to the development of short-term goals for bioengagement activities. Moreover, demonstrating the success of bioengagement programs is inherently difficult because no evaluation criteria exist to measure the ultimate goal of the programs, which is to prevent terrorist acquisition of tools and expertise and identify possible uses quickly. No definitive measures exist to measure the effectiveness of programs focused on prevention.

Coordination among funding agencies and donor countries is a separate challenge that affects the long-term implementation of bioengagement programs in certain regions. A large number of funding agencies and implementers support or carry out bioengagement activities, particularly in regions where terrorist concerns or BW concerns are high.

Specifically focusing on bioengagement efforts in the BMENA region, differences in scientific capacity across the region (in part caused by access to materials, local investment in science and technology, or laws governing or restricting certain types of research) further complicate the development of programs. For example, experience with laboratory biosafety and biosecurity programs varies greatly across the region.

On the other hand, the program described new opportunities for bioengagement and specific improvements to the process of bioengagement that account for differences in capacity and need throughout the BMENA region.

The recommendations were built based on the identified challenges, gaps, and needs in addressing biological risks. Of importance, the opportunities and approaches would contribute to the decades-long concept of a web of prevention, in which a variety of programs are carried out to address security concerns.

EU CBRN CoE Initiative in the Middle East

The EU CBRN CoE is a worldwide EU initiative jointly implemented with the European Commission’s Joint Research Center (EC-JRC) and UNICRI. The initiative aims to mitigate CBRN risks of criminal, accidental, or natural origin by promoting a coherent policy, improving coordination and preparedness at national and regional levels, and offering a comprehensive approach covering legal, scientific, enforcement, and technical issues. The initiative mobilizes national, regional, and international resources to develop a coherent CBRN policy at all levels, thereby aiming to ensure an effective response.

So far, much of the CBRN training provided by the European Commission has been in the former Soviet Union, focusing on nuclear safeguards and security. However, growing demand for nuclear energy, biotechnology, and chemical substances in parts of Africa, in the Middle East, and in South and Southeast Asia requires the extension of a culture of safety and security to these regions. This shift reflects the requirement under UN Security Council resolution 1540 to assist countries in need on a global scale. The Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized states has agreed to facilitate implementation of this assistance.4

Through its ongoing cycle of activities, the initiative enables countries to realize their objectives under the resolution. In particular, the CoE contributes to the achievement of the key requirements of UNSCR 1540 by supplying assistance and technical support to help governments assess national and regional needs and to help develop tailored CBRN CoE projects to plug CBRN gaps5. The EU CBRN CoE Initiative in the Middle East undertook twelve projects in 20136. The projects deal with key CBRN issues such as improving CBRN legal frameworks, enhancing chemical and biological waste management, assessing the risk of CBRN misuse, improving biosecurity and biosafety, building capacity to counter illicit trafficking in chemical agents or nuclear or radiological substances, raising awareness about CBRN-related topics, bolstering the emergency response to CBRN events, and promoting secure exchanges of data about CBRN-related events. The latest project being launched in the Middle East region concerns “Strengthening Capacities in CBRN Response and in Chemical and Medical Emergency,” and will be implemented by EU member states’ agencies in close cooperation with local authorities. The overall objective of this project is to develop a comprehensive inter-country (Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon), interagency structure for the coordination, establishment, and implementation of CBRN incident response throughout the region. It will address national needs in the countries by improving the existing CBRN emergency response capacity and provide comprehensive technology solutions and training in prevention, preparedness, and response.

The Biosafety and Biosecurity International Consortium7

The BBIC is a network which aims to enable the countries of the MENA region to identify the biological risks to which they are exposed and mitigate them through the development of national and regional biosafety and biosecurity strategies underpinned by legislative, human, and physical infrastructure.

The approach is an holistic one—a whole-of-government, one-world view of all biological risk across the spectrum of natural, accidental, and intentional threats as they pertain to humans, animals, plants, and the environment, including water. The network’s main activities are:

  • Holding biennial conferences
  • Designing and implementing national strategies
  • Establishing two biosafety and biosecurity training centers for the region (one in Jordan and another in Morocco)
  • Creating national and regional biosafety associations

The main biosafety and biosecurity activities in selected countries of the MENA region are summarized in table 1.8

Table 1. Biosafety and Biosecurity activities in MENA countries
Country Activity
United Arab Emirates
  • 1st Biosafety and Biosecurity International Conference, Abu Dhabi, November 12-14, 2007.
  • BBIC Core Group meeting, “Developing a Framework for Biosafety and Biosecurity Strategies for the MENA Region,” Abu Dhabi, May 2008.
  • Biosecurity Strategy for the Abu Dhabi Emirate.
  • In March19, 2013, the Regional Secretariat for the African Atlantic Façade (AAF) within the frame of the Centers of Excellence Initiative of the European Union was established in Rabat.
  • 2nd Biosafety and Biosecurity International Conference, Casablanca, April 1-14, 2009.
  • The creation of the Moroccan Biosafety Association (MOBSA) in October 2009.
  • With the help of UNICRI, Morocco is in the final phase of putting in place a National Action Plan on CBRN Risks.
  • 3rd Biosafety and Biosecurity International Conference, Amman, September 12-16, 2011.
  • The Middle East Regional Secretariat for CBRN Centers of Excellence was established in MESIS/Amman, September 5, 2012.
  • In 2009, Jordan established the National Center for Security and Crisis Management (NCSCM).
  • Through the Biosecurity Engagement Program (funded by U.S. Department of State, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, Office of Cooperative Threat Reduction), several biosafety and biosecurity activities were conducted in Jordan for participants from Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Jordan, and Pakistan.
  • Between March-April 2004, a WHO field testing program for a project on “Guidelines for Assessing National Health Preparedness Programs for the Deliberate Use of Biological and Chemical Agents” was conducted with technical contributions from various Jordanian ministries (Health, Defense, Interior, Industry, etc.), the Jordanian Red Crescent Society, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), Health Canada, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), as well as different technical programs from WHO Headquarters and the Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) of WHO.
  • A workshop on the assessment of all-hazard emergency preparedness and laboratory capacity-building for biosafety/biosecurity was held in Muscat, Oman, from August 30-September 1, 2010.
  • The EU/WHO/Ministry of Health (MoH) Biosafety & Biosecurity Project in Oman was launched in 2010.
  • On July 21, 2008, the Pakistan Biological Safety Association (PBSA) was launched in collaboration with the Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation (COMSTECH).
  • In June 2010, the Pakistan-International Council for Life Sciences (ICLS) chapter was established in Islamabad.
  • The ICLS, in collaboration with COMSTECH and the Pakistan Academy of Sciences, organized two conferences on “Conduct of Responsible Science” Safety, Security and Ethics:
  • Islamabad Conference: June 9-10, 2010
  • Lahore Conference: January 31-February 1, 2011

Bio-Containment Labs in the MENA region: Many institutes work using Biosafety Level 1 (BSL-1) and Biosafety Level 2 (BSL-2) facilities. Biosafety Level 3 (BSL-3) facilities are found in four countries, as outlined in table 2.

Table 2. Bio-safety level 3 (BSL-3) labs in MENA countries
Country Bio-Containment Labs
  • The Institute Pasteur in Morocco (IPM) is located in Casablanca (Figure 1): Reference Laboratories—virology (BSL-3), operational 2006.10
  • Gendarmerie Royale (BSL-3, in Rabat).
  • Mohamed V Military Hospital (BSL-3).
  • Biopharma Laboratory in Rabat (BSL-3): vaccine development.
  • The National Institute of Hygiene (BSL-3): Department of Virology. It is a WHO reference center for poliomyelitis and measles and WHO reference center for influenza.
  • BSL-3 facilities exist at Aga Khan University and Indus Hospital Karachi.
  • The BSL-3 laboratories at Aga Khan University are private diagnostic laboratories that process routine clinical samples. The BSL-3 laboratory is primarily used for processing samples from patients suspected of Mycobacterum tuberculosis (TB) infection.
  • The BSL-3 lab at Indus Hospital is used mainly for TB diagnosis.
  • Recently, in January 2014, Pakistan’s first BSL-3 laboratory was inaugurated at the National Institute of Health (NIH) (Figure 2).
  • The state-of-the-art BSL-3 laboratory is the first of its kind in the public sector for high-risk micro-organisms that are too hazardous to be handled elsewhere.
  • The laboratory’s establishment will facilitate advanced scientific research and development in virology and molecular biology on pathogens of public health importance in collaboration with scientific organizations.
  • U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit No. 3 (NAMRU-3) was formally established by the U.S. Secretary of the Navy in 1946.
  • NAMRU-3 is a U.S. Navy research Biosafety Level 3 enhanced (BSL-3E) laboratory with extensive human and animal viral diagnostic capacity, located in Cairo, Egypt.
  • NAMRU-3 is one of the largest medical research laboratories in the MENA region and is also the regional influenza reference laboratory for WHO EMRO, with close ties to the influenza laboratory at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
  • Central Public Health Laboratory (CPHL) in Ramallah: BSL-3 is currently maintained in the laboratory for culturing infectious agents like tuberculosis and other microbial agents with high pathogenicity.13

Conclusions and Recommendations

Regional networks and activities are appropriate forums to help assuage current UNSCR 1540 implementation challenges. Many experts from the MENA region are involved in these regional activities and initiatives. Through bringing champions from each of the sectors concerned together, these initiatives are building networks of experts both nationally and regionally to ensure that National Contact Points and the necessary relationships are in place to deal with a biological event before it happens. By sharing the experience and knowledge acquired through such initiatives and networks, the MENA experts can influence their national decision-makers. These networks also work across difficult political boundaries through sustainable connections. Such initiatives can play a valuable role in identifying mechanisms to advance the interests of all countries involved.

In a region where a number of very sensitive political boundaries are found, a key element that makes any network functions effectively is face-to-face meetings, workshops, seminars, and training. The initiatives and related activities in MENA region have promoted a better understanding of threat perceptions, built relationships among security experts, officials, and academics, and served as a laboratory for new ideas. These networks can also offer potential contributions toward implementing UNSCR 1540 among their members.

However, to sustain the activities of the initiatives in the MENA region, such as training, policy development, and capacity building, a sustainable funding vehicle that shores up the implementation capacity of regional networks and ensures that they can fulfill their potential as facilitators of security-related measures, including UNSCR 1540 implementation, is necessary. Particularly important is funding from private foundation sources in order to strengthen true regional ownership and to counter the perception of a process driven by governments external to the region.

Sustainable and effective biosafety and biosecurity activities developed and implemented in the MENA region, with the assistance of thoughtfully applied funding and expertise, will strengthen regional and global security and solidarity, and ultimately provide opportunities for countries in this region to implement resolution 1540 through regional networks.


  1. M. Martellini (2011), paper presented at the 7th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.
  2. In the context of this paper, “confidence building” is not meant to imply participation in confidence-building measures (CBMs) as implemented under the framework of the BTWC.
  3. K. M. Berger (2013), AAAS report.
  4. UN Security Council Resolution 1540, April 2004; and Canadian Government (note 6), para. 4.
  5. M. de Bruijn and O. McCarthy, “The Centres of Excellence: A New 1540 Player,” 1540 Compass International Organizations.
  9. K. R. Temsamani (2009), Improving Biosafety and Biosecurity in the MENA Region, Regional Biosecurity Workshop: Alexandria, Egypt, February 23-24, 2009.
  10. M. Hassar (2011), Enhancing Biosafety & Biosecurity in North Africa and the Middle East—IPM Experience, Workshop on Biosecurity Challenges of the Global Expansion of High Containment Biological Laboratories, Istanbul, Turkey, July 10-13, 2011.
  11. A. Nasim and E. Khan (2012), Biotechnology and Biosecurity Initiatives in Pakistan: A Country Report. The National Academies Press: Biosecurity Challenges of the Global Expansion of High-Containment Biological Laboratories.
  12. The National Academies Press: Review of the DoD-GEIS Influenza Programs: Strengthening Global Surveillance and Response (2007). 5 Naval Medical Research Unit 3 Egypt Avian and Pandemic Influenza Activities.
  13. N. Shuaibi (2013) Central Public Health Laboratory, Ramallah, West  Bank, Palestine. A “Train the Trainers” Biosafety and Biosecurity Course; El Hassan Science City, Royal Scientific Society, Amman, Jordan, November 19-21, 2013.

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