Covid heats up debate over biological weapons convention

German special unit police officer attends a joint anti-terror exercise of German authorities in Berlin, Wednesday, 11 October, 2017. (Credit: Keystone, AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Covid-19 is spurring calls to revamp the biological weapons convention. The focus of this week's expert session: how to make the convention effective in the modern age.

Fifty years ago this month, the negotiations for a treaty on biological weapons concluded, with the two Cold War superpowers each submitting identical drafts of the treaty.

The establishment of the biological weapons convention (BWC) eased some of the Cold War fears surrounding the stockpiling of bioweapons.

Today, three people run the convention’s implementation support unit. By contrast, the chemical weapons convention (CWC), established in 1997, has 9 technical secretariat divisions run by hundreds of staff.

Like all international treaties, the convention is “a creature of its time”, said Richard Guthrie, former project leader of the chemical and biological warfare project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute and now the co-ordinating editor for CBW Events, a platform that closely follows international discussion on chemical and biological weapons.

The expert session that concluded on Wednesday has been grappling with how to make the convention fit for the future – a need that Covid-19 has thrown into sharp relief.

Meeting magnitude.  This month’s expert meeting is the first at which ideas for an international agency for biosafety, tabled by Kazakhstan, and a stronger implementation mechanism, tabled by Russia, are being discussed in detail. The aim of both proposals is to keep a tighter watch over emerging developments in biological technologies.

Covid-19 has spurred efforts to update the BWC. The pandemic has served as a test case for outbreak response that the counter-bioterrorism community has been following closely.

“There are a number of lessons to be learned from the Covid outbreak. Just how do you deal with a previously unknown disease? What are the sort of questions you should be asking yourself when you're faced with a new disease?,” said Guthrie.

The novelty of the initial Covid-19 virus and its rapid evolution into more contagious variants made many countries realise that they need to develop better response and cooperation capabilities, including for biological warfare and terrorism, he said.

‘Institutional deficit’. The difference between the biological and chemical weapons conventions is striking.

They have similar aims – to ban their respective category of weapons. But the CWC is much stronger, because it was established in the wake of the Cold War, when agreement between the superpowers was easier and a consensus on the details of a verification mechanism was reachable, explained Daniel Feakes, chief of the BWC’s implementation support unit.

The BWC lacks a strong implementation support unit, clear investigative powers, and frequent reviews of the convention and scientific developments.

“There is a need for an institution,” Guthrie said.

“One issue is transparency. Less than half of member states submit confidence building measures,” said James Revill, programme lead in the weapons of mass destruction programme at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR).

Beginning with a stronger implementation support unit will make it easier to strengthen other institutional aspects, Guthrie explained.

Investigation impediment. Despite the precedent set by the CWC, several member countries are wary of a comprehensive institution, especially one with powers of inspection. Leading this group is the United States.

The convention already gives investigatory powers, but the details are blurry. It does not outline, for example, how an investigation should be conducted and it leaves the investigation to the UN Security Council.

This arrangement made sense in the post-Cold War era when the easing of tensions between the US and Russia made agreement at the UN Security Council possible.

Divergences between the two powers in recent years have made it more difficult for the council to serve as an effective investigative body, Guthrie explained.

“Most other countries see there being a need for some form of institution that can deal with compliance questions, but recognise that without the US, it is going to be difficult to push that forward,” said Guthrie.

US opposition has resulted in ad hoc measures, which make it more difficult to rally support for comprehensive solutions, he explained.

He thinks that there is a productive middle ground. “We can learn from the ad hoc arrangements better ways of dealing with multilateral issues and establishing multilateral institutions,” he said.

Review revamp. Keeping up with the pace of scientific developments is a major problem, added Guthrie.

At present, the convention’s review conference is held every five years. A proposal submitted by the UK for discussion on Wednesday morning called for reviews to take place more frequently.

There have also been signs of consensus around the need for regular science and technology reviews to analyse emerging developments and help inform decisions. There is not yet full agreement on the nature of such review meetings, but the principle is gaining traction, Guthrie said.

Terrorism threat. It is difficult to say how high the bioterrorism risk is, said Feakes. The use of pathogens for peaceful purposes is advancing rapidly and genome editing technology is becoming more accessible.

This growth in access and technology does not necessarily translate directly into higher bioterrorism risk, however.

It is still difficult to weaponise a pathogen if a sample can be acquired, Feakes explained. Cold War powers with large budgets found it hard.

Since the 2001 anthrax attack in the US, which involved mailings of five anthrax letters to senators and several media outlets, there have been a few other serious biological weapons threats. Last year, a German court sentenced a 31-year-old Tunisian to ten years in prison for planning a foiled biological bomb attack with deadly ricin poison in 2018.

There has been some debate about whether Covid-19's devastation might inspire bioterrorism. Feakes is doubtful. If anything, the pandemic has shown how indiscriminate a pathogen can be. Covid-19 may make potential bioterrorists think twice.

But the threat remains real, and it is crucial to have strong counter-bioterrorism mechanisms.

“The key thing is to make sure the public health response is agile and able to respond quickly,” said Guthrie. “One of the biggest impediments or discouragements for somebody thinking about using biological weapons is that it will have minimal impact, because there will be a very quick response to deal with the public health problem.”