When Canada hosted the G8 Summit in Kananaskis in 2002, it brought to the table a long and innovative history in the fields of foreign assistance and public international health that, if leveraged, could produce significant advances to the dual threats of neglected diseases and biological weapons proliferation. By integrating Canada’s public health investments in vaccine/therapeutic drug development and foreign assistance to developing countries with Ottawa’s financial and programmatic commitments under the “Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction,” new funding streams could aid the fight against neglected diseases and promote sustainable development all while ensuring the nonproliferation of sensitive weapons know-how.
After more than a decade of effort to eliminate an urgent threat to global security, both anecdotal and empirical indicators suggest that there is a continuing risk of “brain drain” proliferation from the states of the former Soviet Union. While proliferation threats emanate from across the spectrum of WMD specialties, former biological weapons specialists pose a particular challenge owing to the inability of current regimes to detect and prevent the development of weaponized pathogens. Moreover, evidence suggests that the aging community of researchers that have previously raised the most concern do not represent the only proliferation challenge. According to recent analyses, young bioscientists throughout the former Soviet Union with modern laboratory skills that have direct access to biological materials at the erstwhile weapons institutes, as well as strong financial ambitions, pose equally daunting challenges to international security. Like many developing states, the scientific community of both generations in the FSU has not been adequately absorbed into global research networks. This failure not only neglects new scientific knowledge, approaches, and capacities in the region, it sustains an environment in which brain drain proliferation can thrive and flourish.
Scientific advances in vaccine development and other advanced therapeutics have dramatically altered the course of human history. By exploring the frontiers of science, new knowledge has been tapped to conquer diseases that once killed millions of people each year. But while scientific breakthroughs have all but eliminated the threat of life-threatening infectious disease among children in the developed world, we have yet to produce vaccines against most diseases of the poor—malaria, HIV and tuberculosis. These “neglected diseases” represent a central challenge to the continued security of all of humanity.
Thanks to the efforts of concerned governments like Canada, and NGOs such as the Rockefeller and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, the past decade has brought heightened attention to the need to provide vaccines and other advanced therapeutics for treatment of neglected diseases. These efforts have focused primarily upon block purchases of existing products, the prediction of future needs, and on innovative strategies to invest in future R&D. However, in the main, the role of the private sector, recognized as a critical player in transitioning promising vaccine candidates from the lab to large-scale production, has not been successfully integrated into global health and development strategies.
Long-term structural impediments deter pharmaceutical companies from expending significant capital at the front end for modest financial return at the back end. The high costs associated with Western R&D and production has led to a flight from vaccine development for Western markets, let alone for developing countries. Left to market control, affordability, capacity, and availability will remain as significant barriers to effective global vaccination strategies.
Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed a massive biological weapons infrastructure. Today, as a direct result of those investments, Russia and other states of the former Soviet Union (FSU) host some of the most accomplished labs in the world in critical areas of biology. If harnessed appropriately, their knowledge and added capacity could be used for the benefit of global public health. Unfortunately, this potential is not currently being realized.
Obstacles to more effective engagement are twofold: (1) First, there is a continued inability and unwillingness both in Moscow and in Washington to transform their contentious relationship of the past into mutually beneficial cooperation in the present. And (2) second, existing G8 redirection programming is limited by design and by the strictures of standing bilateral agreements, politics, lethargy, and resistance to change. American BW redirect efforts at the US Department of Defence for example, have been dramatically scaled back in Russia due, in large measure, to the difficult history those countries share. American efforts through the Departments of Energy and State are encumbered by a series of Congressional restrictions that prevent innovative efforts to engage scientists in the FSU productively and sustainably.
Programs operated by the Global Partnership Bureau (IGX) at the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade operate under no such restrictions. As such, Canada is uniquely positioned to overcome these obstacles and to provide leadership in regaining momentum for sustainable scientific redirection across the G8. Moreover, Canada’s laudable commitment to nonproliferation, international public health, and foreign assistance, if leveraged appropriately, could produce significant advances to the multiple challenges of biological weapons proliferation, neglected diseases, and economic development.
With increasing budgetary pressure upon government agencies in Canada and elsewhere, federal departments must look to maximize their social return on investment (ROI). If configured appropriately, the post-Soviet scientist redirect programs can produce a value beyond the nonproliferation of expertise. Canada’s global economic development, international public health, and other domestic and foreign policy objectives could be better served through a coordinated model of engagement supported by IGX. Furthermore, by introducing innovative new models, Ottawa has the opportunity to emerge as a leader within the scientist redirect portfolio of the G8 Global Partnership. If done well, these models can, in turn, be embraced by the other G8 countries in meeting their own commitments to the Partnership.
The Pathogens for Peace Initiative (P4P) for Sustainable Scientific Redirection
In December 2005, under a contribution agreement with the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, the Henry L. Stimson Center launched a scoping study—dubbed the Pathogens for Peace (P4P) Initiative—designed to leverage existing investments in the redirection of former Soviet biological weapons specialists with international public health markets and global economic development resources. Our goal was to develop a model designed to provide sustainable employment to former bio-weapons specialists through short-term incentives to engage private sector companies as employers. Additional involvement of other Canadian government agencies would be leveraged in support of mutual public health, development, and other domestic and foreign policy goals.
This approach differs from existing redirect models by focusing on employment as the core objective rather than scientific collaboration (ISTC and STCU) or technology development (US Department of Energy/IPP). Under existing mechanisms, employment is an indirect and relatively infrequent consequence of the core R&D objective. While these approaches do successfully engage target constituencies in the near term, they are ultimately short-sighted because long term redirect and nonproliferation goals are not being met. When scientist redirect funds sunset in 2012, the brain drain threat will likely re-emerge.
Surveying capacity throughout the FSU, the Henry L. Stimson Center concludes that only the private sector has the managerial capability and organizational capacity to make productive use of the target community. Apart from open-ended government patronage, no other approach can provide sustainable employment. Such employment, of course, requires employers—yet “employers” are not part of current programming. While many projects involve private sector participants, their role is to serve as clients for research and development services provided by the scientists from within their erstwhile weapons institutes. It is rare that the scientists have an ongoing role to play once proof of concept is achieved, and even rarer that they become employees of the private sector “partner.” Shifting the focus to facilitating employment by the private sector may continue to involve collaborative research and technology development, but rather than being the central objective (as with existing programs), it will be a means to the end of creating sustainable employment. Furthermore, it will engage the very community that forms the critical link between R&D and production of vaccines and therapeutics for neglected diseases and promote regional economic development by seeding private industry into the states of the former Soviet Union. Involving economic development and public health agencies (both public and private) increases the resource base available for job creation, and ensures that there are stakeholders involved who value the output the company creates by employing the scientific capacity. This increases the odds of success and reduces risks to both government and private sector employers.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade has committed substantial resources to redirection efforts in the states of the former Soviet Union. Moreover, the Government of Canada more broadly has emerged as a global leader in the fight against emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases, poverty alleviation, and global economic development. Ensuring the long-term viability of these efforts, along with the highest possible return on these social investments, however, remains an elusive goal. This study outlines a pragmatic new initiative designed to leverage existing resources, achieve sustainable security, add public health capacity, and promote economic development.