It would be hard to name a presidential administration whose opening year was marked by as many urgent priorities on as many fronts as Barack Obama’s, from the economy to war, from health care to terrorism, global warming to nuclear policy.
Each urgency has unloaded mountains of data demanding new experts with rare levels of specialized knowledge. And therein lies a risk apart from the others – that promising new ideas and good intentions may be thwarted by past mis-information and illusions in the maelstrom of demands and deadlines.
That, we fear, is exactly the case with the threat of bioweapons that briefly took center stage in December at the annual meeting of the nations who are party to the Biological Weapons Convention and has now sunk from view, leaving all the hazards as they were. For more than 30 years, the world has depended on this convention to prevent biowarfare by prohibiting countries from developing such weapons or researching their deadly microbes for any but defensive or other peaceful purposes. So far, so good, we might say – except that our safety is mostly an illusion. The BWC provides for no enforcement, so what rogue nations might be up to in secret is, well, secret. Unfortunately, a major opportunity to repair that was missed at the annual meeting.
The potential repair kit is the long-sought protocol to the BWC, which was sabotaged by the Bush administration. Certainly no panacea, the protocol would have made great progress toward increasing global biosecurity. But the same misunderstandings reared up again, proving themselves durable enough to be a full-blown myth.
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