International Order & Conflict
Commentary

Biological Weapons Under Review at the BTWC

in Program

By Meghan Seltzer – The Seventh Review Conference of the Biological and Toxins
Weapons Convention (BTWC) is currently underway in Geneva, Switzerland, through
December 22.  At this meeting, countries are
discussing a range of issues concerning the BTWC, which is one of two treaties
that govern efforts by the international community to prevent an attack with a
biological weapon.  The operations of the
treaty with respect to the current scientific and technological landscape, as
well as its enforcement are some of the topics under review. 

In 2008, a congressional commission
headed by Senators Bob Graham and Jim Talent stated “…unless the world
community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not
that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere
in the world by the end of 2013…. terrorists are more likely to be able to
obtain and use a biological weapon than a nuclear weapon.”  To prevent an attack with a biological weapon
likely would involve action through the two international treaties that govern
biological weapons.  The 1925 Geneva
Protocol prohibits the use of biological weapons, while the 1972 Biological and
Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC) prohibit their development, stockpiling, and
transfer.   

Enforcing a treaty on biological
weapons presents unique challenges not encountered by treaties on chemical and nuclear
weapons.  Nuclear weapons treaties are enforced
primarily through regulation of certain materials and technologies, such as
tracking the amount of nuclear material possessed.  The Chemical Weapons Convention has developed
stringent guidelines and inspection procedures that ensure compliance.   However, the international community has not
been able to agree upon similar approaches for biological technologies.  One reason for the lack of agreement is the
nature of biological research itself.  Much
debate exists as to whether one can distinguish between biological research
conducted for peaceful purposes and research being done to develop biological
weapons.  Additionally, biological
research for beneficial purposes could also be utilized for nefarious purposes,
a problem often referred to as “dual-use.” 

A good illustration of this principle
can be found in recent studies of the avian influenza (H5N1) virus.  Infection with the H5N1 virus is fatal in
approximately 50 percent of cases; however, the virus does not spread easily
from person to person.  The scientific
community believes H5N1 could eventually change or adapt to allow efficient
person-to-person transmission, potentially leading to an incredibly deadly
influenza pandemic.  Therefore,
researchers are attempting to understand how H5N1 could change to spread
between individuals more efficiently. 

In one recent study, scientists
manipulated H5N1 virus transmission among ferrets, a common animal model of
human influenza, in a way that increased the ability of the virus to spread.  This study provided useful insights into how
H5N1 could become highly contagious, which could allow scientists and doctors
to develop new treatments and vaccines to combat an H5N1 pandemic; however, it
also produced an incredibly deadly virus and a recipe for its production.      

Unfortunately, the “dual-use” nature
of research leaves those attempting to prevent biological warfare and
bioterrorism with the following conundrum: 
too little regulation could lead to the development and use of a
biological weapon, while too much regulation could stifle legitimate medical
research, which is not a goal of the BTWC. Since the BTWC does not have a
formal enforcement mechanism, more informal mechanisms have been adopted by the
BTWC to prevent biological attacks.  One
approach has been the active engagement of scientists performing biological
research, which has included promoting ethical and moral responsibilities of
scientists through oversight, awareness, and education.

An example of this is the involvement
of the treaty’s Implementation Support Unit (ISU) in an international
scientific competition geared towards undergraduate students.  The International Genetically Modified
Machines (iGEM) competition involves assembling pieces of genetic material in
such a way as to accomplish a specific task, such as detecting heavy metals in
drinking water.  Each team is also
required to consider the social, environmental, health and security
consequences of their project by answering a series of questions that must be
submitted in addition to the finished product. 
iGEM also provides participants a list of resources and workshops both
on their website and during the annual jamborees on safety and security.  The ISU participates in both the workshops as
well as serving as a resource for participants throughout the competition. 

As a result
of such engagements, scientists and organizations to which they belong have taken
a more active role in advising the BTWC through informal discussions,
sponsoring workshops, and by sending representatives to the BTWC’s annual
meeting of experts.  Scientists have thus
played a role in informing the BTWC on relevant advances in science and
technology and the potential consequences of these developments in relation to
the BTWC.

The BTWC’s
approach to treaty enforcement through engagement, oversight, awareness, and
education has made scientists part of the solution for preventing bioterrorism
and biological warfare.  In doing so, the
BTWC has managed to tap into a wealth of knowledge, expertise, and
international collaboration that can greatly help support its goals and
initiatives.  To quote Massood Khan, the
president of the Sixth Review Conference, these efforts have “….provided an
opportunity for the world’s scientific community and medical professional to
become directly engaged in developing a response to a threat that, in a sense,
had become too widespread and all-pervasive for governments to tackle alone.”


Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 3rd Class Stephen P. Weaver

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