Even though the use of biological weapons was outlawed by the 1925 Geneva Protocol, leading nations around the world have pursued the development and stockpiling of biological weapons throughout the last century.
In an effort to “exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins being used as weapons,” the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) prohibited the development, production, and acquisition of biological weapons. Today, the United States and 155 other nations have signed and ratified this landmark treaty, the first to outlaw the development and possession of an entire class of weapons.
From the beginning, however, the BWC has lacked robust verification mechanisms, and a few member countries (most notably the former Soviet Union) are known to have violated the Convention. A decade long effort to develop verification mechanisms fell apart in 2001 when the U.S. rejected a draft verification protocol and withdrew from any further negotiations. The U.S. argued that the protocol would not be able to catch all cheaters and that it would put American biodefense programs and the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries at risk. Most other nations disagreed, arguing that the Protocol could increase confidence in compliance while protecting legitimate national security and trade secrets.
Other mechanisms for enhancing confidence in compliance with the BWC also remain weak and under-utilized, and several important countries have not yet joined the Convention. A relatively small number of countries – Egypt, Iran, Israel, Syria, North Korea, China, and Russia – are still suspected of harboring offensive biological weapons programs at various stages of development.
Advances in the life sciences and biotechnology are increasing our understanding and ability to manipulate fundamental life processes, including those of cognition, memory, development, and reproduction. While these advances promise enormous benefits for health and society, some could also make biological weapons more effective and attractive to potential users, depending on the researchers’ goals and intents. Indeed, life sciences research, materials, knowledge, and technologies are often “dual-use” in nature – they can be used both for peaceful and for hostile purposes, both for medicine and for biological weapons.
As dual use knowledge, materials, and technologies have become more widely disseminated and accessible globally, concern has grown that governments – and ultimately terrorists or even technically sophisticated individuals – could exploit them for hostile purposes. Events such as the 2001 anthrax attacks have amplified such concern, although the source of the attack in the U.S. and hence the lessons to be drawn from it remain unknown.
In response to this concern, spending on biodefense has increased dramatically in recent years, especially in the U.S. For example, annual U.S. funding for research and development of medicines and other countermeasures to biological weapons has increased from roughly $580 million in FY2001 to over $3 billion in FY2007. Biodefense research is an important part of the broader range of efforts – from prevention to infectious disease surveillance to enhancing response capabilities – that are needed to protect populations from biological attacks.
At the same time, however, the dramatic growth in biodefense research has some significant downsides. For instance, the large expansion in the number of institutions and individuals working with dangerous biological weapons agents, many without previous experience, is increasing the risk of dangerous pathogens being released accidentally from the laboratory. It is also giving thousands of individuals access to materials, technologies, knowledge, and skills that could be used for biological weapons attacks.
Increased biodefense research in the United States appears to be encouraging increased biodefense research around the world. Such research is precisely the type that raises the greatest dual-use concerns. Of most concern in this regard is the growing amount of research aimed at exploring potential offensive aspects and applications of biotechnology. Such activities could very easily generate the very dangers they are designed to protect against.
Even worse, because of their dual-use nature, biodefense activities undertaken as a hedge against technological surprise and the unpredictability of potential adversaries can generate significant uncertainty among outside observers about their true intent. This problem is most severe for threat assessment research, which is usually conducted in secret.
Secrecy in biodefense is increasing, both in the U.S. and around the world. Secretive biodefense activities threaten to provoke a very real biological arms race as countries react to the suspected capabilities and activities of others and seek to anticipate and counter potential offensive developments by potential adversaries.
A new biological arms race would be a disaster. It would greatly increase the danger that both states and terrorists alike will acquire and use biological weapons. The history of weapons proliferation indicates a flow from the big powers to those with lesser resources. Rigorous state compliance with the ban on biological weapons is critical for preventing bioterrorism.
In recent years, the BWC has been supplemented by measures such as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1540, which requires all U.N. member states to enact domestic measures to make it more difficult for an individual to possess or trade biological weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. But translating the norm embodied in the BWC into a comprehensive and effective international system of safeguards to prevent or deter the development, production, acquisition, or use of biological weapons, while ensuring that the world can continue to reap the benefits of the modern life sciences and biotechnology, remains an extremely difficult task.
International cooperation will be essential in these efforts since no single nation will be able to successfully address the problem of biological weapons on its own. Particular effort is needed in the following areas: