Bolstering Myanmar's biosecurity
text size

Bolstering Myanmar's biosecurity

As Myanmar continues its political and economic liberalisation, it has stepped up efforts to join and ratify a number of international agreements. In December 2014, it ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and, in July 2015, the Chemical Weapons Convention. This highlights Myanmar's seriousness in becoming a responsible and constructive member of the international community.

By ratifying the BTWC, Myanmar promises not to develop, produce, stockpile, acquire or retain biological agents and weapons. This removes the risk of using such weapons along with the accidental release or theft of dangerous biological agents. While this is an important step in improving the country's biosecurity, more must be done. Biosecurity -- minimising the effects of bioterrorism and the outbreak of infectious diseases of pandemic potential -- will be a global issue in this century. Myanmar's public health challenges, geography, and increasing interconnectivity all contribute to the need for robust biosecurity capacities.

Infectious diseases are a real problem in Myanmar. According to the World Health Organisation, it has one of the highest prevalence rates in Asia and thrice the global average: an estimated 180,000 adults and children developed tuberculosis in 2011. Myanmar also has a high disease burden and mortality rate from malaria, with the WHO estimating 680,000-1.9 million cases in 2013. Worryingly, multidrug-resistant (MDR) and drug-resistant (XDR) forms of malaria and tuberculosis have been reported. The impact of communicable diseases is amplified by a chronically underfunded public health system, conflict, poverty, internal displacement and irregular migration. Myanmar's location along migratory bird routes and near emergent disease hotspots also makes it vulnerable to zoonotic epidemics and pandemics.

The Myanmar government did not report cases of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars), but at least one human case and three outbreaks of H5N1 in livestock have been reported in rural areas since 2006.

Bioterrorism is a low probability, high consequence threat. Yet incidents such as the 2001 anthrax letters, the Iraqi biological weapons program under Saddam Hussein, and al-Qaeda's alleged biological weapons programme have kept it on the agenda of governments. Agencies are exploring ways to regulate dual-use research, ensuring adherence to biosafety protocols, vetting researchers, expanding bio-surveillance and improving medical countermeasures, such as vaccine stockpiles. Myanmar's aspirations to be a trade node means it will need to bolster monitoring, including bio-surveillance, at ports and land checkpoints so that transnational criminal and smuggling networks cannot exploit connectivity points for nefarious means such as the transit of lethal biological agents and toxins.

Myanmar's main obstacle to strengthening biosecurity capacity is the lack of human, technical and material resources. Agencies such as the Ministry of Health's Department of Medical Research and the Ministry of Science and Technology lack trained staff and adequate access to modern equipment due to past sanctions. The country has two Biosafety Level 3 (BLS-3) laboratories, in Yangon and Mandalay, and one planned in Taunggyi. The labs serve as tuberculosis reference libraries but their roles have expanded to rapid diagnosis of emerging disease threats. There is a need to ramp up their expertise, capacity and capabilities: some suspected tuberculosis samples are sent to Thailand for testing due to limited capacity. In discussions, staff from the Ministry of Health stress that Myanmar lacks the capacity and expertise to tackle pandemics and that more resources are needed to address familiar infectious diseases.

There are a number of platforms that Myanmar can use to bolster its biosecurity capacities. The newly-launched Global Health Security Agenda, which focuses on preventing, detecting, and responding to infectious disease threats and includes many of Myanmar's neighbours, is one. There is also growing multilateral interest in biosecurity in the region that Myanmar should use. For instance, the US Department of Defence's Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies, the Philippines' Department of Health, and the National Defence College of the Philippines co-hosted a workshop on "Biosecurity in Southeast Asia" in November 2014, involving eight Southeast Asian nations. The "Multilateral Strategic Dialogue on Biosecurity" involves government agencies and research institutions from the United States and some Southeast Asian states. Recognising that biosecurity is becoming a major international issue and exploring avenues for cooperation will enable Myanmar to benefit from the pooled resources and expertise to identify issues, weak spots and opportunities.

BTWC ratification also paves the way for foreign academic and research institutions to collaborate with Myanmar universities on biotechnology research. Building the capacity of Myanmar's BSL-3 laboratories will enable faster disease testing and provide training opportunities. Myanmar hopes to achieve universal health coverage by 2030, and the expansion of public health infrastructure to meet this objective can incorporate guidelines and resources that can be easily mobilised for biosecurity emergencies.

As a developing country that is opening up to the world, Myanmar has a long list of issues to tackle. In health, the emphasis will be on familiar communicable diseases due to the staggering number of its people affected annually. Strengthening biosecurity capabilities occupies a low rung on Nay Pyi Taw's agenda. As the country works on achieving universal health care, however, it would be beneficial to do so because these foundations and resources can serve more than one purpose. In short, improving the country's biosecurity capacities will go a long way and have multiple benefits, contributing to public health, scientific innovation and national security. Pacnet

Kyaw San Wai is a Senior Analyst at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. The article originally appeared in the Pacific Forum CSIS Pacnet series.

Do you like the content of this article?