August 17th, 2021
On the occasion of the International Youth Day, the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA) and the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security (CHS) held an online workshop entitled “Youth talks: building regional bridges for global biosecurity”.
The workshop brought together the Youth for Biosecurity (Y4B) alumni and Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Fellows (ELBI) to celebrate youth engagement in global biosecurity, encourage the meaningful inclusion of young scientists in the discussions held in the framework of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and foster peer-to-peer discussion within a growing network of biosecurity and non-proliferation professionals.
The two-hour event, supported by the European Union under European Union Council Decision 2019/97, was organized in two parts: a networking session providing participants with an opportunity to share their experiences in the global biosecurity field and a panel discussion dedicated to regional perspectives and cooperation on biosecurity from the Global South.
The participants were welcomed by Ms. Anita Cicero, Deputy Director of CHS, and Mr. Daniel Feakes, Chief of the BWC Implementation Support Unit. Ms. Anita Cicero underlined that since biosecurity is a relatively new field and because there is no global biosecurity organization, fostering close connections between biosecurity professionals is especially important. Echoing Ms. Cicero, Mr. Feakes stressed how youth-driven engagement under the BWC can influence current and future multilateral discussions under the BWC.
The networking session started with presentations on the Y4B and ELBI initiatives. Mr. Luis Ochoa, MSc. in Health Management and Pandemic Safety Manager at Michigan State University and Y4B 2019 cohort, and Ms. Mayra Ameneiros, MSc. Biochemistry and Pandemic Tech Innovation Fellow and Y4B 2021 cohort, explained how the Y4B initiative aims to close the gap between life science and diplomacy by creating a platform for discussion between young scientists from the Global South and a diverse range of multilateral biosecurity practitioners, including experts and diplomats. They also described how the initiative partnered with key entities such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative, iGEM and the International Federation of Biosafety Associations, among others.
Both speakers highlighted that the Y4B initiative’s peer-to-peer exchanges provided them with a better understanding of major critical challenges, including the resource constraints that some countries from the Global South are facing which hinder existing efforts in biosecurity, as well as overarching issues such as climate change, environmental degradation, and political instability, which add to the challenge of preventing and responding to biological incidents.
Subsequently, Mr. Ben Wakefield, MSc. in Security studies and Research Associate at Chatham House, and ELBI fellow in 2021, and Ms. Giovanna Pontes, MSc. in Science and Technology Policy and Science Editor at Leiden University, also a 2021 ELBI fellow and Y4B 2019 cohort, gave a presentation on the ELBI Fellowship. They noted that, similar to Y4B, the ELBI fellowship also aims to deepen biosecurity expertise, expand networks with a diverse range of biosecurity actors and build professional skills.
While noting the value of face-to-face meetings, the speakers believed that the virtual nature of the fellowship as the result of the pandemic created a conducive setting for frank discussions with leaders in the field, cross-sectoral discussions, and a thriving alumni network.
The second part of the workshop centered on discussions with three senior health security officials on regional biosecurity issues and youth inclusion in the Global South. Ms. Wallace-Sankarsingh, Biorisk Manager at the Caribbean Public Health Agency (CARPHA), Mr. Michael Glen, Mitigation of Biological Threats Programme Coordinator for the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat and Dr. Talkmore Maruta, Senior Biosafety and Biosecurity Officer at the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) shared insights on challenges and the role of youth in their respective regions.
Ms. Wallace-Sankarsingh, reflecting on her region’s response to the COVID -19 pandemic, stressed the need for better preparing young biosecurity professionals to enable them to contribute to regional public health. The lack of a formal certification programme is a limiting factor for prospective students to choose biosecurity and biosafety as a formal career. This gap, she said, should be closed.
Dr. Talkmore Maruta, in turn, explained how the African Union supports the creation of a skilled and diverse youth workforce through the African Union Youth Volunteer Corps Program, launched in 2010, and the Young African Public Health Scholars Programme launched in 2018 by the Africa CDC. This programme supports 10 young scientists for an 18-month master’s degree study in epidemiology in South Africa, who then join the public health workforce of African Union Member States.
Bringing a South East Asian perspective into the discussion, Mr. Glen introduced the ongoing biosecurity efforts of the ASEAN Secretariat, highlighting the ASEAN Centre for Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases project. Its key objective, the speaker said is providing laboratory training programmes, new analytics capabilities, and offer general biosecurity capacity building activities.
To wrap up, Ms. Lucia Mullen and Ms. Amanda Kobokovich, both senior analysts at the Center for Health Security, delivered a presentation on their Exemplars in Covid-19 Response project. Based on preliminary research in collaboration with partners in Africa, Asia and Latin America, this project aims at identifying best practices and lessons learned to inform decisions related to the COVID-19 pandemic and generate insights to strengthen preparedness to future public health emergencies.
Concluding the event, Mr. Matthew Watson, ELBI Coordinator, and Mr. Daniel Feakes, encouraged both youth networks to continue to share ideas and resources towards making their voices heard on the global biosecurity scene.