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A rethink of the Biological Weapons Convention?

Published on 23 October 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

Opened for signature in 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is one of the mainstays of the UN treaty system banning weapons of mass destruction. It prohibits:

Art 1 (Basic Convention text[1]):

“Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:

(1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes;

(2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.”

The BWC in many ways parallels the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with a significant difference. While under the NPT there is an internationally structured surveillance regime under the auspices of the IAEA, negotiations for an internationally binding verification protocol of the BWC were abandoned in 2001.[2] Governmental Confidence Building Measures (CBM) are what is available since 1986. [3]

The BWC is steeped in a worldview of state-driven research on biological weapons. Meanwhile, “microbial and biological agents” research “for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes” has to a large extent migrated into the private sector. One of the techniques toward developing vaccines and medicines is “gain-of function” disease research.[4] In simplistic terms, in order better to understand the functioning of the pathogen, specific functions, like its infectivity, or way of transmission, are enhanced. So, manipulations of the H5N1 influenza virus have taken place and, I presume, similar work is being performed on other pathogens. Creating “super-bugs” so as better to kill bugs may be necessary or not; the risk of accidental release is in any case ever-present.

Originating at times in the private sector (but maybe with direct or indirect government funding) this kind of research is far from transparent. Whenever an unexpected outbreak occurs, the rumor mill starts.[5] Whatever its fundament, such rumors are a weapon of mass destruction of international trust.

Here the latest development in the area: “The US government surprised many researchers on 17 October when it announced that it will temporarily stop funding new research that makes certain viruses more deadly or transmissible.”[6] It is also encouraging a pause in existing research. Privately funded research would be beyond the directive reach of the US government.


Is the BWC still effective?

The overarching goal of the BWC is to prevent man-fabricated epidemics. To the victims is of little interest whether the epidemic is maliciously intended, or the collateral result of well-meaning efforts to combat it – hence the underlying “dual-use” strategy. In fact, the UN Conference on Disarmament is the venue for both The BWC, the NPT as well as other weapons-control issues.

There are analogies between the two treaties, but also significant differences worth pondering:

  • As to the international legal framework; the WBC is significantly weaker than the NPT in respect of “safeguards” against misuse. It relies of CBM, rather than international transparency through obligatory inspection by a UN Agency;
  • Contrary to nuclear power, where its “technological lumpiness” and the related high costs has kept developments more or less effectively fenced in within government-led structures, biological research is both dual-use and diffused, with a large section in the (transnational) private sector, which is often the lead in respect of affirmative uses of the biological technologies;
  • The NPT grounds in few and relatively stable technologies for producing fissile substances based on physical laws. Biological technologies on the other hand are numerous, evolve rapidly and unexpectedly. The area is rife with serendipity. Costs drop precipitously (one only needs to think of gene sequencing, which has now become commodified). In fact, the major cost component might not be technology development itself as much as containment measures (at which point the temptation to cut costs, or rely in “fair weather scenarios” may be significant);
  • The NPT tries to prevent accrual of fissile material, hence its focus on the control of production, rather than technologies per se. In the bio-world, the step from technology development to production is small, even imperceptible: quantities for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes may suffice to trigger an epidemic, because the disease is self-replicating.
  • The further step of weaponization of results – which is a further obstacle with nuclear weapons, should be no impossible obstacle in the biological world, given current knowledge with handling GMO in agriculture.
  • Surveillance of most countries against nuclear non-proliferation is easy, for most of them shy away from the costly endeavor of producing sufficient weapons-grade material. Few countries can afford to develop nuclear technologies as far as production – unless they brazenly steal it, or are helped along by a nuclear weapon state. This “natural/wealth barrier” to proliferation is absent in disease research, in fact, it is just the reverse. Diseases are most prominent where governance is weak. Under these circumstances, it makes sense to locate research centers in disease-infected areas. There, however, state-sponsored surveillance is limited, or non-existent and containment conditions are difficult.[7] While States Parties are to report on each facility, within their territory or under their jurisdiction or control anywhere, this may in practice be impossible.
  • Disease is an issue within the World Health Organization framework as well. This UN Agency, however, may not have the institutional means to address the issue of surveillance. The risk of the issue falling between the two UN structures is real.

Technology is making “intent” to create biological weapons obsolete: governments (or rogue organizations) can quickly gain access to research results carried out for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes and easily divert them to malign purposes. Or more likely, system failures may lead to epidemics, or even pandemics.

In the wake of the US national initiative on “gain-of-function” research (what a lovely PC term!) and other related matters, an overall review of the BWC to review its effectiveness in today’s bio-world would appear highly urgent to me.

Even should the “system” be fail-safe, the current approach of expert-based CBM would appear inadequate. “Confidence” to an expert is not the same as that of the uninformed public. In matters of health, loss of trust tends to be terminal.[8] Needless to say, loss of confidence tends to spread to other areas and become generalized. It is something we simply can’t afford.

[1] There are Additional Understandings and Agreements to this and other Articles: https://bit.ly/1wlUyXM

[2] Wikipedia reports: “Negotiations towards an internationally binding verification protocol to the BWC took place between 1995 and 2001 in a forum known as the Ad Hoc Group. On 25 July 2001, the Bush administration, after conducting a review of policy on biological weapons, decided that the proposed protocol did not suit the national interests of the United States.” The ad hoc Group stopped meeting in mid-2001. https://bit.ly/1vR2tgS

[3] Fr a guide see https://bit.ly/12gZ93q In particular, “”Exchange of data, including name, location, scope and general description of activities, on research centres and laboratories that meet very high national or international safety standards established for handling, for permitted purposes, biological materials that pose a high individual and community risk or specialize in permitted biological activities directly related to the Convention.” And in particular: “Data should be provided by States Parties on each facility, within their territory or under their jurisdiction or control anywhere, which has any maximum containment laboratories meeting those criteria for such maximum containment laboratories.”

[4] Gain-of-function mutations change the gene product such that it gains a new and abnormal function. https://bit.ly/1CZCjsg

[5] https://bit.ly/1wlYiZe This link contains an interview with Francis A. BOYLE, a leading American expert of biological weapons, who claims that the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa might have originated (probably accidentally) in secret US-led laboratory work in the area.

[6] https://bit.ly/1tj1h4W also https://bit.ly/1sbwxO3

[7] As of April 2013, the following countries are not party to the BWC: Andorra, Angola, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Eritrea, Guinea, Israel, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Micronesia, Namibia, Niue, Samoa, South Sudan, Tuvalu. The following have not ratified: Central African Republic, Haiti, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, Somalia, Tanzania. https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/bwcsig

[8] The misuse of international vaccination teams in sensitive countries for spying has set back efforts in critical areas by years. https://bit.ly/1rrqJQp

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