Daydreams and Nightmares in Biological Weapon Control

Today, interest in the development of biological weapons is the mark of a desperate pariah state or terrorist group. International efforts have led to the de-legitimation of these weapons, improvements in defences, as well as improved processes of detection, attribution, and prosecution. Such efforts have also fostered the emergence of domestic legal frameworks worldwide. The centrepiece of this control regime is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) which is over 40 years old. However, while this system stands as a testament to diplomacy and humanitarianism, it is worth remembering that the emergence of this regime and the norm it embodies was never guaranteed, and nor is its survival.

In particular, developments in science and technology, as well as changes in the character of conflict could undermine existing global prohibition systems. These two types of development make it very hard to predict if, how, and why biological weapons will be developed in the future; yet these very same changes appear to create problems that go far beyond the capacities of our existing disarmament and counter-terrorism approaches. These developments may open up new niches for biological weapon use for states as well as terrorists groups, and are already associated with calls for new ways in thinking about how to maintain the prohibition against biological weapons.

How then, in the context of such uncertainty, should biological issues be addressed in the long term? One set of concerns is focused on incremental developments in science and technology. A key task is distinguishing ‘fear of the new’ from new concerns that genuinely merit further attention. Do new discoveries related to DNA synthesis and manipulation really make the use of biological weapons by states or terrorists more likely or impactful? Or does the novelty of cutting-edge developments lead us over-estimate the likeliness and consequences of misuse? If we understand concerns in this way, then a key challenge is distinguishing between those issues which merit further discussion, and those which require debunking.

There is a second, more ubiquitous type of concern however, which may call for a different response. In this case, specific advances become symbolic of much broader trends that threaten to irreversibly damage existing systems of control and oversight. How seriously, for example, should we take concerns about military interest in biotechnology, in the absence of global and transparent compliance verification systems? Should the international community pay greater attention to the potential impact of military research into biologically synthesised explosivescyborg insects or neuroscience as a threat to the coherence and sanctity of the general prohibition of biological weapons? Should we be worried about biodefensive research that develops techniques to produce ever more deadly pathogens?  Does faith in existing laboratory safety, material controls and public health give us a false sense of security in a dynamic technological and security environment?

A good first step to address both types of concern would be the development of a convincing review process in the context of the BWC. We currently have a system, which is the product of the last review conference. However, the purpose of this process, as well as the criteria by which we should judge its effectiveness, are at best described as ambiguous. It is unclear for example, how well this process even helps states distinguish between the two broad categories of concern above, let alone decide upon points of action. It is with this in mind that we must reflect on what can, and what cannot be achieved in the context of the forthcoming review conference at the end of this year. Many of the key experts and capacities, which currently sit outside of the formal review process, are already there – dispersed as they are within government departments, scientific organisations and industry. In addition to this, much of the conceptual groundwork has already been laid by the Swiss delegation. However, it is yet to be seen whether states will manage to make meaningful progress on this issue this time round.


Brett Edwards


This piece originally appeared on the website The Cipher Brief , under the title ‘The Threat from Biological Weapons’ as part of a series of articles entitled  Biotechnology’s Dark Side January 17th 2016.


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