By Jenifer Mackby
Scientific experts and diplomats debated the tensions between the benefits and risks of sophisticated biotechnology at a July 29–Aug. 8 meeting in Geneva, with developed nations warning about the potential for bioterrorism and developing nations saying they are denied the full benefits of biotechnology. The session gathered scientific experts and officials from states party to the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in their annual meetings to discuss ways to strengthen the convention and confront these challenges.
Modern technical capabilities such as gene editing, gene synthesis, gene drives, and metabolic pathway engineering are helping the health, medical, agricultural, and environmental sectors, but they also risk being misused by bioterrorists. One African country at the meetings, for example, expressed concern that an outbreak of the Ebola virus in the Congo could be used by terrorists to spread the deadly disease across borders to neighboring countries.
The Geneva meetings served as a forum to discuss these persistent tensions in the context of Article X, which provides states-parties the right to participate in the “fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes,” including for the prevention of disease.
Venezuela, on behalf of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), requested in a working paper that the BWC overcome “the obstacles hampering the full, effective and nondiscriminatory implementation of Article X of the Convention, including by addressing the denial cases of states parties.” The NAM claims there that there are restrictions or denials of medicines, vaccines, material, and equipment for peaceful purposes.
Many countries pointed to the extensive programs they have conducted under the provisions of Article X. The United Kingdom reported on its program to provide 500 million pounds each year from 2016 until 2021 to combat malaria and its assistance in introducing single-cell genomics to a university in Thailand. India spoke of a new program of cooperation to upgrade capacities in laboratories on infectious diseases in Africa and an international security disarmament fellowship program. China described efforts to help countries in Africa with the Ebola crisis and a recently conducted course at its Wuhan Laboratory for experts from 22 countries in Africa and Asia. Russia highlighted 15 projects in 20 countries to combat Ebola, plague, cholera, and other diseases and held an international conference on global biosecurity challenges in Sochi in June 2019. The United Arab Emirates announced that it will hold its fourth conference on biosecurity in October 2019 and that it provided $1.7 billion in bioassistance.
Russia proposed the use of its mobile biomedical units, which could operate in the field, to fight epidemics. These units could be used in international cooperation and assistance and investigation of alleged use. Russia has trained 2,500 specialists who can train foreign units in emergency situations. A number of countries in Geneva supported the proposed units, but some thought they should be provided on a national basis, as the BWC could not finance them.
The treaty also encourages nontechnical support to developing nations, and experts discussed a proposal by China and Pakistan for a model voluntary code of conduct for biological scientists that has been gaining support over the past few years.
Officials from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) described their experience with the Hague Ethical Guidelines, which promote a culture of conduct against the misuse of chemicals, stressing safety and security, oversight, ethics, accountability, and exchange of information. The OPCW also presented a description of its scientific advisory board, a subject that BWC meetings have considered as a way for states-parties to keep up to date on advances in the field. Russia, Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden submitted proposals that were well received in Geneva for scientific advisory groups.
The United States and others pointed to the BWC “implementation gap,” noting that one in three states-parties had no prohibition on the possession or transfer of biological weapons and one in four had not prohibited their development or production. Moreover, some experts warned that the risks of new technologies, even some peripherally related to biotechnology, are high. One U.S. presentation, for example, noted a range of threats linked to cybersecurity: Automated biological laboratories could be used for gene editing to enhance the ability of a pathogen to infect a host or resist vaccines or antibiotics. Artificial intelligence malware could be used to destroy or contaminate vital stocks of vaccines or cell or immune therapies. Machine learning could train algorithms to disrupt medical information in a hospital network.
Domestic or international terrorists could intentionally introduce a disease to target humans, livestock, agriculture, or the environment, which could cause devastating health and economic consequences, with severe national and international security implications. Many nations lack the capability to contain such an outbreak or a major biological event and would need international support to react, yet there is no coordinated international response mechanism. A number of countries stressed that this must be arranged before a biological event to avoid unnecessary deaths. The United Kingdom and other countries recommended that the UN secretary-general prepare a plan for a coordinated response by UN member states and other partners to a deliberate release of a biological agent or toxin. A number of countries also proposed strengthening the secretary-general’s mechanism for investigating an alleged chemical or biological weapons attack. But Brazil, China, Iran, Russia, and others believe that the BWC stipulates that the UN Security Council is to make decisions in these situations.
NAM states acknowledge that there is a potential for malicious use that would violate the convention, but insist that the dual-use nature of these technologies should not hamper the free exchange of technologies among convention parties. Iran and Venezuela, in particular, have refused to agree to proposals without a holistic consideration of all issues.
Some NAM members suggested again that states-parties should negotiate legally binding measures to verify compliance with the convention, provisions that are currently absent from the pact. A long effort to develop such a verification protocol was ended in 2001 by the United States, which has argued that the convention is not verifiable. U.S. and UK officials opposed NAM proposals at the Geneva meetings to establish a committee to monitor cooperation, ensure that discriminatory measures are not applied, and address disputes regarding Article X.
The reports from the meetings in Geneva will be considered at the annual meeting of states-parties in December 2019, and any outcomes will be forwarded to the review conference in 2021. Some delegations cautioned that a continued inability to agree on proposals would lead to a greater tendency to work outside of the BWC framework.
The annual budget for the 182-nation BWC is $1.5 million, and states-parties pay based on the UN scale of assessments. Due to persistent problems with late payment and nonpayment of dues, by Brazil in particular, the treaty has frequently been under financial duress and was forced to cut a day from its December 2018 meeting of states-parties. It is not certain if there will be sufficient funding for the entire four-day meeting of states-parties that is scheduled to convene December 2019.