The UK government is reviewing its biological security strategy and has issued a multi-disciplinary call for evidence from health and security experts to help to shape policies aimed at protecting the UK from biological threats including:

  • a major new health crisis, including pandemics;
  • antimicrobial resistance;
  • accidental pathogen release; and
  • deliberate biological attacks by state or non-state actors.

With this evidence, the government intends to refresh the UK Biological Security Strategy, which dates from 2018 and which has been subject to significant criticism. In December 2020, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy published its Biosecurity and national security report and found "profound shortcomings" in the strength of the UK’s biosecurity oversight and governance, particularly in relation to pandemic planning. Additionally the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy in 2021 highlighted a need to review and reinforce a cross-governmental approach to biological security.

Announcing the review, the government noted that it intends to "incorporate learnings from the recent response to COVID-19, consider evolving priorities since the pandemic, and reflect the rapid advances in science and technology across all aspects of biological security." It also acknowledged the need to "embrace innovation to bring to bear new biological security capabilities" as part of the ‘build back better’ effort.

Commenting on the call for evidence, Michael Ellis QC MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said:

"COVID-19 shone a light on the significance of biological security and ensuring we have robust plans in place to protect the public from threats in the UK and overseas… [T]he Government will be looking into how we are protecting the country and its interests from significant biological risks. This will include considering the evolving priorities since the pandemic and rapid advances in science and technology across all aspects of biological security."

The government has asked for responses to the following questions:

  1. What are the key biological security opportunities, challenges, threats and vulnerabilities facing the UK?
  2. How can the UK capitalise on the identified opportunities?
  3. What lessons can we learn from the UK’s biological security delivery since 2018, including but not limited to COVID-19?
  4. How should progress be monitored and evaluated, and how often should the strategy be refreshed?

The subject matter and questions asked in this consultation are wide-ranging, calling on expertise from both health and national security experts:

  • From a health and life sciences perspective, the development can be seen against the backdrop of the UK government’s post-Brexit efforts to support innovation and embrace new technological advances in the life sciences arena, some of which have been accelerated by the pandemic. For example, the MHRA’s recent rhetoric has been very focused on the intention to make the UK an innovative hub for life sciences, and you can see further here and here how the government is currently grappling with challenges related to regulating and making use of AI in a healthcare context, by way of illustration.
  • From a national security perspective, it follows a general trend for increasing scrutiny of critical supply chains, for example, with the UK’s recent National Security and Investment Act 2021, which makes certain M&A transactions related to targets active in areas perceived as high risk subject to mandatory merger review, including (but not limited to): AI; advanced robotics; synthetic biology; and supply to the emergency services. For further analysis please see here.

The deadline for responses is 29 March 2022 and the updated strategy is expected to be published later this year.