International Order & Conflict

Cooperative Threat Reduction: Reducing Biological Risks in East Africa

in Program

By Kevin Wickel – In November 2010, Senator Richard Lugar and a team of
Pentagon officials travelled to biological research facilities in Kenya and Uganda to highlight the regional bioterrorism
threat. The Department of Defense has subsequently announced that the
Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction program would, for the first time,
expand its biological threat reduction initiatives outside of the former Soviet Union to secure vulnerable pathogens that could be
used in a terrorist attack.

The CTR program’s expansion could address certain security
gaps in the near-term too, for example, the construction of new security fences
and installation of more effective locks on units where biological agents are
stored. However, a narrow focus on security is not practical in a region where
leaders find it difficult to prioritize the threat posed by bioterrorism,
considering that their populations face far greater challenges on a daily basis,
such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, small arms violence, and endemic poverty. In
recognition of the divergence in threat perceptions between the US and
local African governments, funding should be allocated strategically to not
only reduce biological risks, but also improve public health capacity in the

Biological diseases like Ebola, Marburg,
anthrax, Rift Valley fever and the plague still pose serious public health
challenges in East Africa, since they are
naturally occurring throughout the region. 
As a result of recent outbreaks, hundreds of people have died, including
a Dutch tourist who contracted Marburg in Uganda
in 2007, while livestock losses have resulted in millions of dollars worth of
economic damages. Necessarily, research is conducted in search of effective
countermeasures, yet this requires deadly pathogen samples to be stored on
site. Specimens of many of these same diseases were obtained in Africa by the
former Soviet Union for its biological weapons
program during the Cold War. Terrorists, however, would not need to develop an
extensive weapons program to divert these deadly viruses and utilize them in an
attack that could result in significant casualties and generate mass hysteria.

Al-Qaeda, which is known to have pursued its own biological
weapons program in Afghanistan,
established cells throughout East Africa and was responsible for the 1998 US
Embassy bombings and the bombing of an Israeli-owned hotel in Kenya in 2002. In June 2006, Abu
Azzam al-Ansari reiterated the importance of Africa in the organization’s
global strategy by posting the article “Al-Qaeda is moving to Africa”
on an online forum. The rise of the al-Qaeda linked group al-Shabaab has
greatly exacerbated the regional terrorist threat, and more specifically, the group’s
July 2010 bombings in Kampala, Uganda during the World Cup finals demonstrated
its ability to carry out attacks well outside Somalia.

With limited resources available, both biosecurity and
biosafety in East Africa have been largely
overlooked. At one site in Uganda,
anthrax was stored in an unlocked refrigerator. Other sites in the region
lacked entry monitoring and inventory sheets to screen who has access to
biological agents.  The convergence
between these types of lax security measures and known terrorist organizations
with a propensity to commit acts of mass violence could potentially facilitate
an act of bioterrorism in the future. Nonetheless, those responsible for
implementing the CTR program’s expansion should avoid the temptation to
maintain a security-centric focus, which could actually be rendered ineffective
if the research community views security measures as overly burdensome and
intrusive. A more prudent approach would be to make some modest security
improvements to address the most glaring facility vulnerabilities, while
allocating the bulk of the program’s resources toward building public health

CTR funding could be tapped by governments to obtain modern
research and waste disposal equipment and receive biosafety training to the
benefit of their public health infrastructures. Capacity building in these
areas is badly needed to prevent the unintentional spread of deadly viruses-which
recently occurred when five scientists were accidentally infected with Rift Valley
fever in a Kenyan research lab-and to provide researchers with the necessary
resources to identify and respond to deadly disease outbreaks. Capacity
building to target biological diseases that affect both humans and livestock
would also benefit various development initiatives, which have been undermined
in the past when governments responded to disease outbreaks by enacting trade

Additional collaboration and information-sharing between US
and local researchers could further improve regional disease surveillance,
detection, diagnosis, and reporting capabilities-a key component of President
Obama’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats and the
Administration’s negotiation strategy for the 2011 Biological Weapons
Convention Review Conference. Furthermore, East Africa’s
core public health monitoring and reporting requirements, as identified in the
World Health Organization’s 2005 International Health Regulations, would also
be strengthened. This, in turn, would make the region safer for travel and help
regional tourism continue to flourish.

In order to implement a successful long-term approach to
confront the threat of bioterrorism in East Africa,
it will be important for the USG to strike an appropriate balance between US national
security concerns and the priorities of recipient governments. Fortunately, the
two are not exclusive. If resources are allocated strategically, the CTR
program’s expansion can complement other agencies’ initiatives in the region,
and the bioterrorism threat will be effectively addressed, while humanitarian
interests and international public health are also served.



Photo Credit: Senator Lugar led a mission to Africa in November with a team of Pentagon arms control
experts. During his trip he inspected this “cage,” which is used to store samples of
deadly hemorrhagic viruses such as Ebola and Marburg
(November 2010, Uganda)


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