Angela Kane, UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, speaks at the special event marking the opening for signature of the ATT. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

Lab Leak? Bioweapons Attack? Natural Pathogen? A New Proposal Would Give the UN the Ability to Investigate | Angela Kane

Rapidly identifying an emerging infectious pathogen is critical to  prevent a disease outbreak from becoming an epidemic — or even a deadly pandemic. But right now, there is no agreed international mechanism to do so. Veteran UN diplomat Angela Kane is trying to change that. She is working to create a new UN body to strengthen UN capabilities to investigate high-consequence biological events of unknown origin.

Angela Kane, is the Sam Nunn Distinguished Fellow at the Nuclear Threat Initiative. She is a veteran diplomat who has held several senior positions at the United Nations, including Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Under-Secretary-General for Management, and High Representative for Disarmament.

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Transcript lightly edited for clarity

How are disease outbreaks currently handled by the World Health Organization and the United Nations? 

Angela Kane [00:00:00] These effects of a biological event of an unnatural outbreak could actually have devastating impacts and could be worse than COVID-19.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:00:31]   Right now, in the architecture of global health security, the World Health Organization has a mandate to investigate emerging diseases of natural origins. And the office of the U.N. secretary general can investigate the use of bioweapons. But when the origin of a pathogen is unknown, there is no international platform that can quickly respond. This gap is particularly problematic because we know that labs around the world are conducting research on pathogens far deadlier than COVID that could be deliberately weaponized or accidentally released. Angela Kane is working to establish what is known as the Joint Assessment Mechanism to strengthen U.N. capabilities to investigate high consequence biological events of unknown origin. Just a quick note before we start, I am very happy to announce that the podcast received a new grant from Building a Stronger Future Inc, which is a family foundation run by Sam and Gabe Bankman-Fried. The grant will enable me to scale up the podcast and further improve the listener experience, and it is part of the reason the podcast has been sounding so good recently. I am really excited for what this grant will enable me to do in the future and for the future. Now here is my conversation with Angela Kane.

Angela Kane [00:03:18] What we’ve seen in the last, I would say, 20, 30 years really is that we’ve seen the consequence of pandemics, of zoonotic diseases, and it seems that they kind of appeared of nowhere. But of course, they all do have an origin. And I believe that COVID 19 in particular has really revealed that national governments, but also international organizations like the United Nations, like the World Health Organization, are really unprepared to respond to pandemics. And that underscores that we’re very vulnerable to a future of biological events and biological events, you never know exactly what could happen, and these effects of a biological event of an unnatural outbreak could actually have devastating impacts that could be worse than COVID 19. And so, what was important is to really identify the source of emerging pandemics and that would tremendously help in mitigating the effects in real time and also possibly guard against future risks. I mean, look at our world today, it’s totally interlinked. You have trade, you have travel, you have urbanization, you have environmental degradation and all of this really increases the likelihood of naturally emerging infectious disease events. And at the same time, in parallel, we are facing a growing risk from human caused pandemics, which could happen because of accidental or even deliberate misuse in the tools of modern bioscience and biotechnology. And as we know, bioscience and biotechnology has made tremendous leaps and bounds and achievements over the last years. And these are mostly positive, and we don’t want to prevent those but on the other hand, we also have to guard against the future risks. Now, what happens if you have an outbreak? I mean, no country can really handle this on their own because as we’ve talked, diseases don’t really respect borders. But on the other hand, when you have an outbreak, what do you do? If it’s a natural outbreak, you go to the World Health Organization, and they would handle that. So, they sort of say there is a disease that has existed for many years and let’s see what we can do to contain it.

How can the WHO and the UN decode whether a disease outbreak is a deliberate attack or a natural occurrence?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:29] And we’re experiencing that right now with monkeypox.

Angela Kane [00:05:33] Well, yes, Monkeypox has been around for a long time. There’s a vaccine against it, but still, I think people were very surprised, or countries were very surprised, that it all of a sudden emerged and actually became a threat. And now it is even declared by W.H.O. to be a threat with global implications. And was everyone prepared? I think there were vaccines, but it’s taken people by surprise. But this is very different from the mechanism that we are looking at, because we are looking at a mechanism that looks at if it’s not a natural occurrence, which W.H.O., the World Health Organization, would be responsible for, and we don’t know whether it is a deliberate, a weapons attack, there is a mechanism that exists in the United Nations Secretariat under the Department for Disarmament Affairs, and that is called the Secretary-General’s mechanism. And it is against precisely an attack both on chemical and on biological weapons that was used, for example, in the Syria investigation in 2013 on chemical weapons, which I actually was responsible for. So, if you don’t know whether it’s deliberate, if it’s a weapons attack or if it is a natural occurrence, where do you go? Who do you ask to assess this outbreak? And so, there is a gap there because who acts? It isn’t the WHO, it isn’t the Secretary-General’s mechanism, so who’s responsible for it? How can you actually find out what’s happening in a particular country, in a particular region? And so, this mechanism would be established to have a small entity that would monitor these developments and would actually go out and assess the developments and come back with a fact finding, a factual report as to what happened, and it would be doing that by using the capabilities that already exist and are trained in the United Nations. For example, under the Secretary-General’s mechanism, there has been quite a bit of money and time invested in training national experts. They have trained together; they have had tabletop exercises together. And also, in the WHO you have the relevant experts. So, this really would be excellent because the Secretary-General could actually command those two entities to say, ‘You work together, you give us the right people so we can assess this all together,’ but without making it either one or the other, meaning health or deliberate attack, because you just don’t know at that time.

How would COVID-19 have been different if it was declared a pandemic earlier?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:00] So, you know, we have existing processes for a natural occurring emergent disease like monkeypox. We have existing processes for the deliberate use of biological weapons, but it’s that gray middle area when you don’t know the origin of a biological event that this new mechanism would take place. Could one speculate that if this mechanism existed back in 2019 and early 2020, it would have been useful to assess whether or not COVID was naturally occurring or a lab leak?

Angela Kane [00:08:37] I can’t really answer that with any confidence. I think there was some time that elapsed while this was being looked at and being ascertained, particularly in China. I think we learned about it and the rest of the world quite a bit later. It was only in March that a pandemic was declared. So, there was a lot of time that I feel that could have been used in possibly assessing the risk that existed and basically assessing the circumstances of that existence. If that mechanism had existed, would it have been employed? I can’t really answer that question. I would hope that it would have been, but again, that’s a bit of a speculation on my part. But what it really is necessary in this case is to rapidly identify if there is a high consequence biological event, because only then can you say what is the cause of it? What happened, and what can we actually do to forestall it? Because what happened with COVID is, of course, that the time lapse between the original identification on the ground and the declaration of a pandemic, you pretty much, if I understand correctly, lost three months. And so, the disease was able to spread much more rapidly and was not as contained as might have been possible had it been declared earlier.

What is the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM)?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:09:52] Could you describe a plausible scenario or even a plausible future scenario in which a mechanism like the joint assessment mechanism that you propose would prove very useful?

Angela Kane [00:10:07] MTI has run a number of tabletop exercises; I think two of them actually on precisely that scenario. Now, what did we do? We took a very hypothetical case, a hypothetical country we identified, and this hypothetical country had ambitions to basically wage war against its neighbor, except not with the traditional means, but with biological warfare, and therefore, they created a virus that they released on their neighbors. So, this would then spread around the rest of the world, and we had scenarios where it would kill X millions of people and infect millions of others, etc. So, we used to do war gaming, now we’re doing biological gaming. But in any case, what happened is that we just tried to model this as to what would happen. And in that particular case, it is, of course, a possibility if it is a war outbreak and if then the country that is affected by it could say to the Secretary-General, there is this mechanism that you have, I believe it is a weapon, but if you cannot make that argument stick, you have nowhere to go. And this is where the joint assessment mechanism would come in because you can’t prove that it is actually a weapon. And so therefore, if it is an outbreak of undetermined origin, that’s when this mechanism would jump into action and say, we need to find out exactly what’s at the origin and what’s at the basis of it.

What was the outcome of the UN’s investigation into chemical weapons use in Syria?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:11:34] I’m glad you mentioned Syria and chemical weapons earlier because I’ve been covering the United Nations for over 15 years now and one enduring lesson, I’ve learned throughout that time is that process can often dictate outcomes. In other words, how something is set up very heavily influences the kinds of actions and decision, a mechanism like this can take. And I’m thinking that the most proximate example of the joint assessment mechanism you propose is the joint investigative mechanism on alleged chemical weapons use in Syria. And here, because of the dynamics of the Security Council, the work of that investigative mechanism became heavily circumscribed and eventually Russia just killed it off in support of their ally, Syria. How would the intended structure of the mechanism that you describe avoid a similar fate to what happened with the chemical weapons investigation in Syria?

Angela Kane [00:12:32] Mark, you know the U.N. very well, and I think you’re right in terms of the process but let me start at the very beginning of the process when the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) happened.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:40] And the JIM is the joint investigative mechanism on Syria’s chemical weapons use.

Angela Kane [00:12:45] Correct. Which was established by the Security Council and then it was extended with agreement of the Security Council members. And in the end, Russia vetoed it because they were very unhappy with the way the investigations were going and that brings me back to the process. What happened is that the cases that the joint investigative mission (JIM) was tasked with investigating were all cases that had been brought forward and investigated by the so-called fact-finding missions by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the OPCW, which sits in The Hague. Now what is interesting in this is that they did not take the Syria investigation of 2013 of Ghouta; they excluded it. And I think the process here was really very different from the fact-finding missions than it was from the Syria mission, which I led. And that is that the fact-finding mission of the OPCW, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, never went and investigated on the spot. They didn’t have the chain of custody. They didn’t have all of the, let’s say, proof that is really required for an investigation to hold up. They did a lot of the investigations outside of the country in refugee centers, talking to survivors, talking to victims, but on the other hand, that was the flaw in the process because they weren’t able to get into the country. I think the first trip they took; they were shot at and then they just didn’t return because it is a dangerous situation and was a very dangerous situation in Syria. So, this was always, let’s say, the argument that was used by Russia, by Syria, by countries that supported Russia in Syria against the JIM, that they didn’t actually go into the country. They didn’t have the chain of custody. They didn’t have the full proof, which they felt was at the basis of actually convicting it. Nevertheless, I think they did very good work and I think they did whatever was in their purview and whatever was possible for them. And they did come out with findings because they had an attribution of responsibility, of culpability, I should say and that was very, very important also for those countries who wanted to see that those parties who were culpable would actually be brought to justice, which incidentally, as we know, has not happened. But we have to distinguish that because the JIM was seen very much as a punitive measure. And this is something that I find very, very difficult because in the UN it is very hard to have naming and shaming to have punitive measures. This is something that is very hard to have in the multilateral environment and you know that very well, particularly because you see it now. Multilateralism is a bit of a bad word right now. I’m hoping that it will come back because it’s the only way to go forward in this world but on the other hand, of a punitive mechanism, of a punitive culpability brought out in the Security Council is something that is very difficult to do and will eventually be resisted, as it was by Russia when they vetoed it. The joint assessment mechanism does not do that. It is neutral, meaning that it is a fact-finding mechanism, but not a mechanism to indict, not a mechanism to point the finger and sort of say that person, that country has to be punished. It is simply a fact-finding mechanism.

What is the Joint Assessment Mechanism (JAM)?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:16:05] And presumably also the joint assessment mechanism does not require the will of the Security Council to depart on a mission. This is an executive authority of the secretary general himself or herself, not a collective decision that requires no veto at the Security Council.

Angela Kane [00:16:24] That is correct. And that is something that we have actually proposed. It’s a bit of an unusual structure, I should say, which has not had a lot of precedent. Right now, the precedent that we have — and there was just someone appointed for it — is an IT envoy in the Office of the Secretary-General, who also has a small office, and he serves directly under the Secretary-General. And this is what we are proposing for the Joint Assessment Mechanism to have a small, dedicated unit of scientists who can actually conduct ongoing data analysis, but also have the operational capability to launch an assessment under the authority of the Secretary-General. And it has to be the Secretary-General because he alone can say to the capacities that exist in the U.N. system, like under the Office for Disarmament Affairs, under the Secretary-General Mechanism as well as W.H.O., he can actually command them to say, yes, you do that assessment and you come back and bring back the facts. And it is also important because I think facts are so helpful. They are so important right now because we have seen so much disinformation, we’ve seen so much misinformation also about biological events and monkeypox was one of them when it first came up. But on the other hand, what is really needed is that you have a group, and you have an entity like the U.N. that you can trust to come out with an assessment that basically says, this is what we found, this is the truth, and this is what we’re bringing to you.

How will the Joint Assessment Mechanism do its work of assessing disease outbreaks?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:00] So say the joint assessment mechanism is up and running as a function of the office of the Secretary General in years from now or months from now or whenever it is created, if it is created, let’s imagine that it’s up and running. And let’s imagine that there is an unexplained biological event of some sort. Could you walk me through how this office would snap into action and the actions it would take?

Angela Kane [00:18:27] What the office would do, and again, let me stress that is a handful of people, but it’s a handful of people who are basically monitoring developments around the world: What are areas that are possibly at risk? If you know what’s normal, all of a sudden you can see what’s abnormal, but you have to have a baseline. You have to have a data baseline. And there’s a lot of information that you can get, not even from privileged information sites, but very much from open sources. And we’ve discussed this with some companies and NGOs, civil society, who are looking at open-source documentation on these issues. This is really amazing what can be found, now simply because you have so many sources, there’s so much material available, you just have to know where to look. So, once you have this baseline data and once you have all of a sudden, an occurrence that does not match the expectations that you have about a country or a region, then you can send a team to go there. Now, there are a couple of problems there, though, because — and I don’t mean to say problems — but on the other hand, you have to get the agreement of the country in which such an outbreak occurs to go there. You cannot just invade the country. You cannot just go there. It’s a sovereign country and this sovereign country has to basically agree to an assessment mechanism coming.

What will the Joint Assessment Mechanism do if a country refuses to open its doors to the investigators?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:19:46] As I was reading up on your proposal, this to me seemed like a really difficult needle to thread that a country that presumably did release some biological agent would not be welcoming of investigators from the U.N. to uncover the fact that they released a biological event. So how do you assure the consent required to get boots on the ground and do the investigating?

Angela Kane [00:20:14] I don’t really agree that it would be difficult, Mark, and again, let me go back to Syria. You remember that Syria itself requested the team to come into Syria to investigate. So, it was their request that did it. But on the other hand, I’m not assuming that this is a malicious outbreak, a malicious biological outbreak. I am assuming that it could be an accidental leak from a laboratory. It could be somehow an accidental occurrence that happened or a spontaneous occurrence that happened. The country that is affected would be very much interested in not only knowing what happened, but also in getting help from the international community to contain it, because that country would be the first to be affected by what is happening. Think about the comparison with COVID right now. COVID is still basically locking down China. Every time you have a case, there’s a lockdown in China and that is not a couple of hundred people, but it’s going to be millions of people. So, this is like two and a half years later, we’re still grappling with the issue of the lockdown. So that to me is very strong incentive for a country to ask for an assessment and then hopefully, once it has been established, what it is and how it can be contained, they can get help from the international community, that’s really, really important.

Who is supporting the UN Joint Assessment Mechanism initiative?

Mark L. Goldberg [00:21:36] You mentioned earlier that multilateralism is in kind of rough shape right now. What is required to bring this idea to life? Is there a cohort of member states, for example, that you would want to support such a mechanism coming to life? Presumably, it can come to life through the stroke of a pen of Antonio Guterres, but also presumably he would need political support in order to make a mechanism like this effective. So how are you trying to bring this to life?

Angela Kane [00:22:09] That’s a very good question, and that’s exactly the issue that I’m grappling with right now, to do that. I started at the Nuclear Threat Initiative a year ago. I had participated in some of the meetings that were held that were discussing this issue and so I got very involved in it and I was very happy to join them. Unfortunately, that was still when COVID was raging. It still is not gone but on the other hand, what it meant is that there were no in-person meetings, there was no travel. Offices were all virtual in many cases, and that only gradually opened up earlier this year. Now, you know, Mark, you’ve been at the U.N., you know diplomacy. Diplomacy is not conducted in the virtual environment. It’s very, very hard to conduct diplomacy in a virtual environment. It’s very personal. It’s very hands on. It’s very difficult to do over Zoom, even if you know the person already. I am a great believer in meeting people face to face. If you want a little anecdote, I will tell you one that I will never forget. It was during the General Assembly high level debate, and there was a reception and the reception was out on the lawn and it was at an embassy, actually, and I was standing with this prime minister and I was standing also with a representative to the U.N., I shall not name the country, and we were standing there and we were just chatting and talking and how do we do this and how do we like that speech, etc., just talks about and all of a sudden the sprinkler system in the garden went on and we all got wet. And I will tell you that every time I met either the representative or the prime minister, we would still laugh about this because this is an experience that kind of somehow ties people together. It just creates a common experience that becomes very funny, but it is useful if you have such encounters, and I don’t mean that that is very normal to have an account of getting sprinkled with water, but on the other hand, I think that this is the diplomatic business, as I would call it, that just makes it easier to talk to people. And I’ve also found it helpful in my long years of function at the United Nations, sometimes people don’t want to come and make an appointment in your office because they want to discuss something with you that may be a little sensitive or that maybe they are a bit reluctant to talk about. So, they will approach you at a cocktail party, or they will approach you at a meeting and they will say, ‘Oh, by the way, I wanted to ask you a question, but I didn’t want to make an appointment. But what do you think of X, Y, Z?’ So that’s really how a lot of diplomacy gets conducted. If you make it in a formal meeting, it gives it a different veneer, if I can call it that. So, it’s much easier to do it in social meetings, but you basically also have to do it in formal meetings. And that’s actually happened — once things opened up again with travel, I went to the Biological Weapons Convention preparatory meeting. There will be a five-year review meeting later this year and I met with a lot of delegations, and I basically introduced the concept, discussed it with them, but also got feedback because we don’t want to say this is a readymade package and take it or leave it, but it needs to be refined, it needs to have reactions. We also want governments to have input in this to say, do we actually agree with this, and can we support it? We’ve had a number of publications. We’ve had a blog on the European Leadership Network. We’re having one coming out on the Asian Pacific Network. We have written an article in Arms Control today, which was also reproduced and passed through. And so, there are a lot of initiatives that we taking to basically say we want this to succeed, we want this to also be known and we want to discuss it with you. And there were a number of hearings, as I would call them, that were conducted, I think there were five of them, earlier this year and they were with academia, with civil society. There were some former government representatives, the United Nations Foundation, and I presented the JAM proposal at two of those meetings, and it was very well received. And so, the next step is that there will be this high-level board on multilateralism, and they will look at these proposals and they will forward to the Secretary-General what they consider is worthy of his attention and I’m hoping that the Joint Assessment Mechanism proposal will be among them. I don’t know for sure, but I hope that they will put it into the proposals, and it will go to the Secretary-General.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:26:34] In terms of getting formal buy in from Member States to support this initiative, does the buy in of specific states say China, the USA and Russia, is that required? Is that necessary to advance this issue going forward or is there otherwise some sort of coalition of states that you could foresee coming together around this to give the secretary general the political space and room needed to create this mechanism?

Angela Kane [00:27:08] Well, Mark, you mentioned the magic word, and that is the Secretary-General needs political space and it needs political support. That is absolutely true. Does he need it from every single member state? I don’t believe so. This is an initiative that would come from him, but he would like to have as much political support as he can get, and he should have because he does not want to be discredited or does not want this unit to be discredited, but he wants to have it supported. Now, there are difficult issues ahead to the extent that this is a discussion that we haven’t had individually with, let’s say, China or with, let’s say, the Russian Federation, but we’re working on it. And I think it is also necessary. The first time, for example, that I know that people read this is when the blog Pass Blue published the reprint of the article in Arms Control Today. So, I know that there is basically awareness of this to a high degree in addition to those countries that we’ve spoken to. I will be together with my colleague at the NPT review conference next week, we’re having a side event on this particularly joint assessment mechanism and also to give us a chance to actually talk to some of the member states we have not yet talked to but should be talking to in order to speak to them about this approach, in order to speak to them about this joint assessment mechanism, what it will do. And I think that that is absolutely necessary, and it may not be the last time that we talk about it. It may be that there will have to be meetings, for example, at the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference, which will take place in November. That is very important. You cannot expect that every country immediately says, this is fantastic, this is fabulous, but I will say that we have gotten already a lot of support for this initiative because it is seen to be a gap in the international mechanisms, in the international institutions to cover the case that currently is possibly likely to happen.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:09] Well, Angela, thank you so much for your time.

Angela Kane [00:29:12] Thank you very much, Mark.

Mark L. Goldberg [00:29:21] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.