Biological Weapons Under Review at the BTWC

Stimson Spotlight

Biological Weapons Under Review at the BTWC

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