The Southern Caucasus Workshop on Public Health, Security, and Law Enforcement Partnership in Bio-Incident Pre-Planning and Response and the associated Southern Caucasus BioShield 2010 Tabletop Exercise were held in Tbilisi, Georgia, 11-12 May 2010. These events were a joint effort of the US Department of Defense (DOD), Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA); US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (HHS/ASPR); and Georgia’s Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Affairs (MoLHSA), National Center for Disease Control and Public Health (NCDC).
The events were initiated per Georgia’ request to the United States for assistance directly related to this year’s Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) annual meetings which will discuss and promote common understanding and effective action on the provision of assistance and coordination with relevant organizations upon request by any BWC State Party in the case of alleged use of biological or toxin weapons, including improving national capabilities for disease surveillance, detection and diagnosis and public health systems.
About 80 participants were in attendance, from inter-governmental organizations (WHO, INTERPOL, NATO), US Government [DOD, HHS (ASPR and CDC), Department of Energy (Sandia National Laboratories), Department of State (US Embassy in Georgia and the Bureau of Verification, Compliance, and Implementation), and Department of Justice (FBI)], and from public health, security, or law enforcement organizations from Georgia, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Romania. Non-governmental organizations such as VERTIC (Verification Research, Training and Information Centre), Bechtel, and Global Green USA were also represented at the workshop.
The workshop and tabletop exercise aimed to:
- Foster improved understanding of the respective procedures and requirements of public health, security, and law enforcement communities in response to a biological incident, and enhance their joint effectiveness in pre-planning and response at the national and regional/international level;
- Enhance understanding of intergovernmental organizations’ role and their interaction in the process of sharing information and coordinating the international response;
- Emphasize the concept that information exchange in the early stages of a biological incident is critical to effectively containing the outbreak/mitigating the consequences of a biological incident and to apprehending the potential perpetrators;
- Review existing legal and regulatory infrastructure of national measures consistent with the obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), UN Security Council Resolution 1540 (UNSCR 1540), and WHO International Health Regulations (IHRs) to deter, prevent, or respond to biological incidents or threats.
The workshop was organized as a series of plenary presentations (“academics”) followed by a tabletop exercise focused on bioterrorism prevention, deterrence, and response. The plenary presentations addressed:
- WHO’s revised International Health Regulations (2005) and Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network (GOARN);
- The UN Secretary-General's Mechanism for Investigation of Alleged Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons and its key elements [trigger procedures under the BWC, the roster of experts and laboratories provided by BWC Member States, and the guidelines and procedures for the conduct of investigations as updated by the UN Office of Disarmament Affairs (UNODA)];
- NATO’s resources for assistance to Partner countries, its Defense Against Terrorism Initiative, and NATO’s recent (2009) Comprehensive, Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) and Defending against CBRN Threats;
- Interpol’s Bioterrorism Prevention Programme and its resources for assistance to member countries;
- National Response Plans with a focus on public health and medical services capabilities and response;
- The following topics were also included, inter allia: national plans and responsible authorities for bio incident consequence management, exercises/training in support of national plans, whole-of-government and regional collaboration approaches and/or plans for national/international information sharing and notification, epidemiological/law enforcement investigations, consequence management, and coordination of assistance.
- US Government activities in the region such as those undertaken by:
- HHS/CDC [programs aimed at strengthening the national response capabilities to infectious disease outbreaks through training of the public health workforce, enhanced public health leadership, and laboratory quality management systems via the Southern Caucasus Field Epidemiology and Laboratory Training Program (SCFELTP)]; the Southern Caucasus program commenced in 2009 and continued in 2010 (with participants from the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Agriculture from Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). The SCFE(L)TP overview was presented by Dr. Edmond Maes, Chief, US CDC - Georgia Country Office.
- DOD/DTRA’s Biological Threat Reduction Program (BTRP) which, in addition to developing technical competencies, also builds and improves the required laboratory infrastructure.
No single community can prepare fully nor respond completely, to a large-scale biological incident and whole-of-government and community partnership are necessary for timely and effective preparedness and response at the national level. This was the main message of Dr. Dana Perkins, Senior Science Advisor, HHS/ASPR, when presenting the Whole-of-Government Approach to Consequence Management of Biological Incidents and Hazards, providing a brief overview of the US National Response Framework (NRF), the role and responsibility of HHS as the lead Federal agency for providing public health and medical services under the Emergency Support Function # 8 (ESF#8), and the roles of other agencies as described in the Biological Incident Annex of the NRF (e.g. public health reporting instances of disease that raise the “index of suspicion” of terrorist or criminal activities to the FBI as a segue to the next topic of the day).
The joint CDC/FBI presentation on Pursuing a Joint Strategy: Public Health-Law Enforcement was a team effort of Dr. Konrad Hayashi, Chief, Epidemiology, Surveillance and Response Branch, Division of Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response, CDC, and Supervisory Special Agent Kristine Beardsley, FBI, WMD Directorate. They defined the goals of public health and law enforcement during an event, discussed the key elements for planning, prevention and response, and described approaches for information sharing during an event. The speakers highlighted the benefits of working in partnership and the critical elements for achieving common goals (i.e. protecting the public, preventing/stopping the disease, identifying those responsible for the threat/attack, protecting own personnel during response/investigation), such as securing dangerous pathogens, establishing information sharing protocols and procedures (related to threat assessment, investigations, and interviews), and conducting joint training.
While various workshops were held in the past for joint training of public health, security, and law enforcement communities, this event was a first at the international level by successfully linking the international RESPONSE to a bioterrorism incident stemming from the convergence of criminal and terrorist networks, with PREVENTION via nonproliferation mechanisms such as:
- BWC, which effectively prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, retention, stockpiling and use of biological and toxin weapons and is a key element in the international community’s efforts to address the proliferation of WMDs);
- UNSCR 1540, which requires all UN member states to refrain from providing support to non-State actors that attempt to develop, acquire, manufacture, possess, transport or use nuclear, chemical or biological weapons and their means of delivery, and obligates member states to establish and to enforce domestic controls to secure WMD-related materials and prevent their proliferation); and
- NATO’s Comprehensive, Strategic-Level Policy for Preventing the Proliferation of WMDs and Defending against CBRN Threats, and its focus on prevention and strengthening international nonproliferation mechanisms (i.e. BWC, UNSCR 1540, Proliferation Security Initiative, etc); and increased information exchange, engagement, cooperation, and joint training with Partner nations, international and regional organizations, and civilian entities.
These events also constitute a significant landmark for ASPR’s international activities in building coalitions and improving international partnerships among public health, security, and law enforcement to improve regional and global partnerships in preparedness and response to biological incidents, whether natural, accidental, or deliberate in nature.
The workshop and associated tabletop exercise were highly praised by those in attendance and stimulated additional requests for follow-on training events and inter-organizational engagement to improve inter-sectoral and international cooperation, coordination, and partnership to prepare for, and respond to biological threats.
View the Southern Caucus BioShield 2010 After-Action Report.