Toespraak minister Ank Bijleveld Munich Security Conference (Engels)

Address by the Netherlands Minister of Defence, Ank Bijleveld-Schouten,

Munich Security Conference, 17 February 2018

Side event on Bio-terrorism, Health Security and Technology Advances

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you, your excellency [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf] for your remarks. You are an inspiration to us all.

Thank you, Secretary Moniz, for giving me the opportunity to speak on this important issue.

An issue that was brought to the attention of this conference by Mr Bill Gates, just last year.

In his speech, Mr Gates pointed out that pandemic diseases are a threat to global security.

And rightly so.

The threat is real. This is not a script for a film.

This could happen in the next 10 to 15 years. It can happen either by a quirk of nature, or at the hand of a terrorist…

We do not need to turn to fiction to know how disruptive an outbreak of disease would be...
Just look at the effects of Ebola in 2014.
Or at the effects of bird flu and swine fever….

And now imagine if a disease like that is spread by a terrorist…

This is a possibility.

Because as we know, the technology for creating biological agents has improved greatly.

So with low costs and simple delivery methods, bioterrorists can spread – not only disease – but also panic and disruption…

And although the technology is new, the concept is not.

Using bio agents as a weapon is actually as old as time.  

There are examples from the 14th century… where cadavers infected with the Black Death were hurled over the walls of a city…

A more recent example of bioterrorism are the anthrax letters of 2001….

With only a few grams of material, twenty-two people were hospitalised. And five people died...

To this day, the idea of a deadly infection being mailed to your home address in a common postal envelope still gives me shivers...

Or the idea of drinking a glass of water…  {water omhoog houden}
… that lóóks clear and clean. But is actually filled with disease…

It terrifies me.

But despite all this, we – the international community – continue to underestimate this risk.

For too long, we have failed to recognize biological agents as a threat to global security.

If an outbreak occurs, we are often ill-prepared and overwhelmed.

But we should be ready for it. 

As the saying goes: 

an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

So… what can we do?

I have good news and bad news.

The good news is: there is a way to deal with this.

In the Netherlands we have had our own terrible experience with bird flu, swine fever and mad cow's disease.

I have seen with my own eyes how devastating this was.

I have sat at a kitchen table of a farmer, who mourned the loss of the thousands of animals he nurtured.

Who lost everything he worked for. 

The least you can do, in a crisis like that, is make sure the government is ready to step in.

So around 12 years ago, we decided to launch a special response unit in the Dutch armed forces.

If an outbreak occurs… the armed forces - together with the police, the fire department and health services - are ready to take action. 

Our armed forces have also just started a four year research program, to be able to detect an outbreak as soon as it occurs.

But this is all “after the fact”.

The best way to prevent an outbreak, is through policy and regulations.

The Netherlands has developed a unique approach to this.

We do not impose policy and regulations top-down.

Instead, the government asks companies and institutions that deal with bio agents what works and what doesn’t.

We create rules and policies from the bottom up.

And this makes it all the more likely that the bio sector will actually stick to them.

This ‘consensus-model’ is deeply rooted in Dutch culture. It’s in our blood.

Another thing that’s in our blood, is international cooperation.

In our national CBRN [Chemical,  Biological and Radiological and Nuclear] training center we are working together with – amongst others - the Americans, Norwegians, Germans  and the Belgians.  

By learning from each other and working wíth each other, we can find common solutions for this problem.

So that’s the good news.

The bad news is: countries that are the least prepared, are the most likely to be struck.  

War zones and other fragile states desperately need help to deal with this.

That is why experts from the Netherlands Institute for Public Health and the Environment have taken their expertise abroad.

After a successful project in Uganda, they are now active in Kenya, Tanzania  and Central Asia.

The offer of help can start with creating a list of dangerous biological agents…

or training people who work with bio agents in labs…

or organizing stakeholder meetings for collaboration within the region.

All these offers of help can indeed effect real change.

But it’s not enough.

To tackle this issue on a global level, we need more.

Like I said: it starts with regulation.

We need to make sure that the Biological Weapons Convention and  UN Resolution 1540 are not just paper tigers.

They should be enforced.

And we should develop a verification mechanism that works.

In addition, we need to get better at coordinating international action.

The UN, NATO and the EU are all trying to do their part.

Not to mention the efforts of institutions like the Global Health Security Agenda or the One Health Initiative.

But these efforts will do so much more good, if they are integrated.

So in order to help coordinate these efforts, the Netherlands has accepted the secretariat of the ‘Global Health Security Agenda action package focused on bio safety and bio security’.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We should take this issue just as seriously as we take nuclear or chemical threats…

Because although a pandemic outbreak is what they call “a low probability risk”…  its effects would be catastrophic.

I am glad that this subject is finally on the political agenda.

But I sincerely hope we do more than just talk about it….

In my opinion, this issue boils down to a four step approach.

- Starting with: creating rules and policies from the bottom up, in order to prevent outbreaks from happening.

- And then enforcing the rules we have by developing verification mechanisms.

- And if an outbreak occurs: we should be ready to step in.

- And last but not least: we should get better at coordinating international action, so we can help the countries that need it the most.

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure.

I would say that in this case: one milligram of prevention is better than a pound of cure…

Thank you very much.