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Danish help to identify bioterrorism

Thursday 07 Nov 19

Contact

Rene S. Hendriksen
Professor
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 62 88

Contact

Frank Møller Aarestrup
Professor, Head of Research Group
National Food Institute
+45 35 88 62 81

Researchers from the National Food Institute, Technical University of Denmark, have been working with the US Department of State to prepare laboratories around the world to be able to trace the cause of a bioterrorism attack more quickly.

The use of biological agents as a weapon has been banned under the Geneva Convention since 1925, which was further supplemented by the 1975 Biological Weapons Convention. Nevertheless, the potential use of disease-causing agents, such as bacteria or viruses, by terrorists or even states remains an important security concern.

If a country suspects that it has been attacked with a biological weapon, it can ask the United Nations, UN, to investigate. The UN Secretary General has the authority to launch an investigation in order to identify the disease-causing agent, and determine whether it is present as the result of a natural outbreak, an accidental release or intentional use, and assess who may have been responsible.

Testing and training laboratories

Researchers from the National Food Institute have been working with the US Department of State to prepare laboratories worldwide to be able to help the UN trace the cause of a bioterrorism attack more quickly.

"The ability to reliably detect and report a biological threat is essential for both implementing rapid and appropriate control measures and also to avoid unnecessary fear in the population if a potential threat turns out to be false."
Professor MSO Rene S. Hendriksen

”The ability to reliably detect and report a biological threat is essential for both implementing rapid and appropriate control measures and also to avoid unnecessary fear in the population if a potential threat turns out to be false,” Professor Rene S. Hendriksen from the National Food Institute says.

The researchers have tested the laboratories’ ability to analyze whole genome sequencing data. During the project, participating laboratories have performed a number of exercises. These have increased in complexity, ranging from testing individual bacteria to analyzing complex samples of food and drinking water, containing genome sequences from a wide variety of organisms, which the laboratories had to test in order to identify the disease-causing organism.

”In a short period of time, the laboratories must determine how contagious an organism is and how it originated. That is, are we dealing with a naturally disease outbreak, an accident or an intentional release?” Rene S. Hendriksen explains.

Identifying new cooperating partners

More than 60 laboratories from 33 countries have taken part in the project. This includes laboratories, which were already known to the UN, as well as many other laboratories that had not previously taken part in such bioterrorism-related exercises.

In the project, the National Food Institute has worked closely with the Swedish Defence Research Agency, FOI, which has often provided expert assistance to the UN in this area.

Read more

The National Food Institute carries out research using whole genome sequencing techniques. As such, the institute is helping to set the international standard for the detection, surveillance and studies of the global spread of disease-causing microorganism and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

The National Food Institute works to promote use of the technology worldwide and heads up the EU project COMPARE with 28 European partners. The project aims to make it possible—in real time—to exchange and interpret information about disease-causing microorganisms from around the world and compare this with other relevant information such as clinical and epidemiological data from laboratory testing of bacteria and patient interviews.

Read about this work on the institute’s website: Whole genome sequencing.