George Mason biosecurity course keeps global health security relevant

The goal of the Pandemics, Bioterrorism and International Security course at George Mason University (GMU) “is to prepare participants for dealing with issues at the nexus of health and security in a globalized world,” Gregory Koblentz, deputy director of the Biodefense Graduate Program in GMU’s School of Policy, Government, and International Affairs, said.

Using case studies based on the 1976 swine flu scare; the 2001 anthrax letter attacks; the SARS and avian influenza outbreaks; the 2009 influenza pandemic; and the 2014-15 Ebola epidemic in West Africa, students taking the course are able “to explore how elite organizations have struggled to address novel biological threats, improve their resiliency, and work effectively with new partners,” Koblentz, the lead instructor, said. “The course provides cutting-edge analysis of critical issues at the intersection of health and security.”

The lessons from these cases, Koblentz said, are broadly applicable to both public and private organizations seeking to address current and emerging biosecurity risks.

Koblentz told BioPrepWatch the course's goal is to have students leave "better informed about important biosecurity issues such as dual-use research, the development of medical countermeasures, and pandemic preparedness, but also with new conceptual tools for assessing biological risks, building resilient organizations and societies, and overcoming organizational obstacles to adaptation and innovation.”

Specifically, the GMU Biodefense Program is an interdisciplinary research and education program designed to produce the next generation of biodefense and biosecurity practitioners and scholars, he said, adding that students gain the knowledge and skills to:

• Assess the risks posed by natural and man-made biological threats,
• Bridge the gap between science and policy, and
• Develop strategies for reducing these risks to national and international security.

“By combining a foundation in the biological sciences with a focus on policy analysis, it is the first program of its kind in the United States to offer a broad program of study in the defense against biological threats and other weapons of mass destruction,” he said.

Koblentz said the course is designed for practitioners and academics in public health, the life sciences, biosafety, industry, international affairs, law enforcement, emergency management and national security. Anyone who has responsibilities for preventing, preparing for or responding to pandemics or bioterrorism is encouraged to enroll.

Koblentz and his team of distinguished faculty, including nationally renowned experts, have offered the course for 12 years, first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and now at GMU. Over the years, he said, they’ve had students from a wide variety of organizations, including biotech and pharmaceutical companies, state and local health departments, law enforcement agencies, colleges and universities, and federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Army, and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

“We’ve also had a fair share of international students including biosecurity experts from the Netherlands and Denmark, a public health official from Rwanda, and a public health researcher from Mali,” he said.

Originally, the purpose of the course was to help students better understand the threat of bioterrorism and the new types of capabilities and partnerships that their organizations would need to prepare for such a threat, said Koblentz, who in 2012-13 was a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

“As new threats … have emerged, we’ve updated the course to keep it relevant,” he said. “Global health security is a dynamic field and we want to make sure we’re providing our students with the information they need to respond to today’s biological threats and prepare for tomorrow’s.” 

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