The EU must work much closer with its 27 national capitals and across the Atlantic to combat the growing threat of bio-terrorism, according to EU and US policymakers and scientists.
The European Commission aims to fire up discussion of the issue and prompt some solutions when it issues a consultative document on bio-preparedness in the coming weeks.
While Washington is pushing ahead with high levels of government spending and close public-private coordination to protect the US population against bio-attacks, policy in Europe still lacks focus and is splintered into separate national policies, despite universal concern among EU and national experts that their continent is highly vulnerable to attack. Pan-European research is just as fragmented, though current and forthcoming EU-funded projects aim to pull researchers in the same direction.
The different approaches to bioterrorism preparations and challenges on either side of the Atlantic was the subject of discussion during a recent closed-door gathering in Brussels of bio-policy officials from government and industry organized by the public affairs consultancy, Weber Shandwick. Around 35 participants split equally between government and industry attended the stakeholder debate, most of which was off-record. ISN Security Watch was invited to attend as well.
While malevolent use of viruses and other bio-agents is the more obvious worry for most policymakers, naturally occurring bio-threats to human health should not be overlooked, John Oxford told the group.
Professor of virology at St Bartholomew's and the Royal London Hospital, and scientific director of Retroscreen Virology Ltd, Oxford warned that even without a deliberate "perversion" of science "there is a high likelihood we'll have an influenza outbreak in the 21st century. There have been three avian flu epidemics in each of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and there's no reason to doubt our century will have them too."
While Oxford expressed confidence in the ability of technology to meet the challenge of influenza and other threats to human health, he said Europe needed "more policy cohesion regarding early detection of outbreaks and more investment in the sector."
Tip of the iceberg
Lack of policy coherence in detection is but start, however. There is no policy coherence in bio-preparedness in general across Europe, whether the issue is one of vaccine production, security at bio- and virological laboratories or national immunization policies.
For example, the German government aims to have on hand enough vaccines to cover virtually all of its population in the event of a virulent influenza outbreak, while next door in Belgium, the figure is less than 20 percent.
"It's better to stock a lot of low-effective vaccines that than a smaller number of high-effective ones. Some member states have grasped this; others not," Oxford said.
Above all, there is no intra-EU solidarity mechanism in place regarding vaccine stockpiles. In the event of a massive virological attack, government and industry officials alike admit in private that panic and chaos will ensue.
"We all know this but no one dares to say it openly," a Dutch public health researcher previously told ISN Security Watch. "Too many heads would fall."
One of the main obstacles to a common view on vaccine production and stockpiling is money: Either there is not enough of it in public health coffers or it is spread over divergent priorities across national economies in Europe.
As one EU source at the stakeholder debate observed, "We have a problem across the EU with vaccine policy. If governments do not provide a certain economic incentive [to produce the vaccines], industry won't develop them."
With a single and much larger health budget than any of the 27 EU countries, the US administration decided four years ago to take the ec