18 November 2022 marked a milestone moment for Sri Lanka’s biosecurity efforts, when experts from the Dutch Biosecurity Office handed over critical software to high-level officials from the Sri Lankan Ministry of Health to enable the formal establishment of a National Inventory of Dangerous Pathogens (NIDP).
The ceremony took place in the framework of a technical workshop, which was held in Chilaw, Sri Lanka on 17 and 18 November. The two-day workshop concluded a series of initiatives, including a virtual training held in May 2022 and an in-person workshop in Bangkok last August, as part of a joint project with the Netherlands’ Biosecurity Office, implemented by UNODA and funded by the European Union (EU) under EU Council Decision 2019/97 in support of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).
A NIDP allows countries to “identify and document information in a dedicated electronic database on institutes that store or maintain dangerous pathogens”. As a result, Sri Lanka now knows what pathogens are being used in the country and where they are located. It also provides an indication of the biosafety and biosecurity measures in place at those locations and where those measures should be strengthened. In addition, the inventory will be critical to inform first responders in case of an unintentional or intentional pathogen release.
Sri Lanka and UNODA have collaborated over the course of multiple years for the implementation of the Convention. The assistance programme began in 2020 with the launch of the National Preparedness Programme, which included online information sessions and virtual trainings on preparing and submitting BWC Confidence Building Measures. In close collaboration with the Sri Lanka BWC National Contact Point, establishing a national inventory of dangerous pathogen was identified as a key priority for the joint project.
Having such inventory systems is an obligation under Article IV of the BWC, which requires States Parties to take all necessary measures to implement the Convention domestically. Additionally, developing such systems was also put forward as a recommendation by the World Health Organization Joint External Evaluation (JEE) in Sri Lanka in 2017.
In line with States Parties’ obligation to facilitate assistance and cooperation under Article X of the BWC, UNODA partnered the Dutch Biosecurity Office to support Sri Lanka’s effort towards establishing its NIDP. The Dutch Biosecurity Office has extensive experience of providing a stepwise, systematic approach and best practices, and had previously provided similar trainings in multiple East-African countries. In addition, the Netherlands also provides the software of the electronical database and its source code to safely and securely store the data collected for the NIDP to other BWC States Parties at no-cost.
The seven-month cooperation between the two countries started in May 2022 with a virtual introductory event, which gathered over 100 Sri Lankan participants and two experts from the Netherlands Biosecurity Office, Mr. Rik Bleijs and Mr. Sjors Schulpen. They discussed the objectives and benefits of setting up a NIDP and outlined the four phases of the project, namely: identification, preparation, implementation, and maintenance and evaluation.
 In addition, the Sixth, Seventh and Eighth Review Conference of the BWC called upon “ States Parties to adopt, in accordance with their constitutional processes, legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures, including penal legislation, designed to (…) ensure the safety and security of microbial or other biological agents of toxins in laboratories, facilities, and during transportation, to prevent unauthorized access to and removal of such agents or toxins”. See: Vennis IM, Bleijs DA, Brizee S, Van Den Berg HHJL, Kampert E, Rutjes SA, Van Passel MWJ. Systematic approach towards establishing a National Inventory of Dangerous Pathogens. Glob Health Action. 2021 Jan 1;14(1):1971866. doi: 10.1080/16549716.2021.1971866. PMID: 34493169; PMCID: PMC8439225.
From 9 to 10 August 2022, 19 representatives from different Sri Lankan ministries, representing the Sri Lankan NDIP Working Group, which had been constituted after the virtual meeting, participated in an in-person workshop at the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN ESCAP) in Bangkok, Thailand. Prior to this second event, Sri Lanka had completed the identification phase and mapped all stakeholders to be involved in the NIDP, identified a designated national focal point and assigned roles and responsibilities among involved entities. In addition, the government had further identified all laboratories that harboured dangerous pathogens.
Through several interactive activities, under the guidance of Dutch biosecurity experts Mr. Rik Bleijs and Ms. Iris Vennis, participants focused on the preparation phase, producing a list of priority pathogens of concern and developed a plan to collect data from all involved entities.
The second and final workshop gathered the members the national NIDP working group as well as high officials from the involved entities. In addition to the official software transfer ceremony, the workshop focused on the last steps of the preparation and implementation phase. In an interactive setting, participants discussed developing a bio-risk assessment system and adopted a risk assessment matrix to that end.
Throughout the project, awareness-raising activities were conducted with the group and tools developed by the Netherlands were presented for dual-use risk assessment or laboratory inspection. In addition to supporting Sri Lanka in developing an inventory, it will also bear many fruits for the country’s overall implementation of the BWC. Notably, the inter-institutional and cross-sectoral coordination structures that were established as part of the project will be key in other areas of BWC implementation efforts, such as adopting biosecurity legislations, policies and preparedness and response systems.