Gabe King discusses the political pantomimes which sometimes surround the discussion of dual-use issues. He deals with a specific variety of dual-use issue, which occurs at an international level. Specifically, he examines the problem that ostensibly peaceful state funded research might be interpreted to ‘cross the line’ into illegal offensive bioweapon research. His article examines recent accusations about a Lab in Tbilisi, Georgia. His article leads us to consider the value of verification in relation to national research capacities.
Gennady Onishchenko, Russia’s Chief Medical Officer and head of ‘RosPotrebNadzor’ the Russian consumer protection agency claimed late last month that a U.S funded bio-lab in Georgia posed, “a direct threat” to Russia and a “Direct violation of the BWC”. This statement was further echoed by Vyacheslav Tetekin, a member of the Dumas Committee on Defense, who stated“ there is perception that biological weapons are beginning to be used by the Americans more and more widely. I see this situation from the point of view of national security”. Both officials firmly accuse the Georgian authorities of kowtowing to their U.S puppet masters.
The ‘Richard G Lugar Center for Public Health Research’ in Tbilisi, which is at the center of this spat, saw a U.S investment of US$150 million into the state of the art lab. Of course Georgian officials were quick to point out the absurdity of the comments and further highlighted the point that Russian personnel had already inspected the facilities and, in fact, any expert or specialist was welcome to do the same. Whilst the likelihood of such a facility being used for a covert biological weapons programme seems remote, it is crucial to note that the specter of dual-use potential still looms large in the minds of some.
Onishchenko had, earlier this year, claimed that Georgia deliberately introduced African Swine Fever (ASF) to Russia by parachuting in a regiment of infected pigs. This claim seems to compliment his earlier fears that food and wine may be poisoned by the Georgians, presumably as some kind of retribution for the 2008 war. It also seems to have the added bonus of being yet another opportunity to lash out at the US, its approach to international security, and its allies.
The script between the U.S and Russia is by now almost farcical with the two sides co-opting into a familiar tango. The U.S continues to highlight the opacity surrounding the Russian Biodefense programme, compliance issues and the inheritance of Soviet activities. In retort the Russians ask for evidence and then point to dubious dual-use activities and the U.S refusal to create verification mechanisms for the BWC. Whilst, for the rest of us, it seems that the science and real threats are usually cast aside for yet another round of political point scoring. These competing and constructed narratives fail to enhance security for any nation, instead they continue to fuel a cycle of anxiety that should have long since passed.
It is worth remembering that problems with dual-use technologies are not confined to the laboratory, indeed perception and Spin can be just as dangerous a weapon as any pathogen. Rhetoric and posturing serve only to fuel the security dilemmas of old and detract from key biotech breakthroughs, and new emerging challenges in the security environment. The continued lack of verification protocols in the BWC coupled with the often opaque (and in the case of Russia, some might argue covert) nature of biodefense research will continue to pose a significant threat to international security.
And whilst parachuting pigs and poisoned wine from Georgia may seem like an absurd threat to some, these ideas continue to be perpetuated by those who seek to utilise scientific discovery for political gain. In the dual-use world, sound and responsible scientific research needs to be complimented by a measured, legitimate and informed approach to political discourse. Inflammatory statements from all sides do little more than erode the precious commodity of probity that we should all hold dear.
Gabe King is a postgraduate student at the University of Queensland in Australia. His main research focus centers upon the interplay between biotechnology and international security.