Last updated: August 2021
Over the years, present and past members of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical weapons (SWG) have written hundreds of issued papers, commentaries and analyses. Many of these documents were never published, but distributed to relevant people and organizations. Some are over twenty years old, but are still relevant or have considerable historical or educational value. Here, key unpublished-issued and published papers may be accessed in their entirety from this website. These documents trace the activities of the SWG over the years. They are organized, mainly by the year they were issued or published, newest to oldest.
Some of the earlier documents list the Federation of American Scientists as the SWG’s parent organization. The SWG is now housed at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Click on the titles below to access each document.
The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates how an infectious disease can cause massive casualties, destabilize governments, and garner intense media attention as countries struggle to respond effectively. Will the pandemic inspire terrorist groups to consider biological weapons, hoping to replicate these effects? This question is the latest iteration of the debate over the risk posed by bioterrorism, which is characterized by three camps: optimists, pessimists, and pragmatists. This article revisits these schools of thought in light of COVID-19 and analyzes recent developments among extremists to assess the new risk of bioterrorism. The article concludes with recommendations for policymakers to mitigate this risk.
Seasonal influenza viruses are a concern because they spread throughout the world in a year or two, infecting ten- to twenty-five percent of the world’s population. Seasonal influenza causes 290,000 to 650,000 respiratory fatalities worldwide. With a world population of about 8 billion, the fatality rate is from 0.0036% to 0.0081%. With such low fatality percentages, no wonder seasonal influenza does not seem particularly dangerous to most of us. If an influenza virus was created inside a lab and somehow released into the community, spread worldwide, and caused 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, we would be outraged that some lab caused these deaths.
The article focuses on lab-created, highly pathogenic avian influenza virus that have been made mammalian airborne transmissible. The abbreviation used for these lab-created viruses is matHPAI. This research is an example of particularly worrisome gain of function (GOF).
While the secretary-general of the United Nations has questioned whether the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a gap in global defenses against bioterrorism that a nefarious group may seek to exploit, the reality is that the pandemic has only underscored the folly of biological warfare, a strategy which relies on weapons—viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens—that would indiscriminately wreak havoc on the attacked and the attacker alike. Indeed, most countries in the world are part of the Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty that—while lacking an enforcement mechanism—has successfully bolstered the near universal norms against the use of biological weapons.
The adoption of the Biological Weapons Convention as a rule setting, normative proscription against biological weapons has value, even without enforcement tools. Far from irrelevant, the BWC provides a useful forum for the international community to discuss a wide range of topics related to biological weapons. Almost all countries accept the convention and its underling norms because of the widespread belief that biological weapons have no military utility. It’s easy to renounce a weapon category that has no practical value. Moreover, public renunciation of biological weapons can earn a country political good will. Indeed, the convention has fostered an international community of diplomats and others who’ve successfully addressed some of the few concerns that have surfaced. That’s far from toothless.
About the authors
Glenn Cross, PhD, is the founder of Crossbow Analytics LLC, a firm specializing in analysis of CBW issues. Now retired from the federal government, he worked on chemical and biological weapons (CBW) issues for several US intelligence agencies beginning in the early 1990s. From 2008 to 2010, Dr. Cross was the Deputy National Intelligence Officer for WMD & Proliferation responsible for biological weapons issues. He is the author of Dirty War: Rhodesia and Chemical Biological Warfare, 1975-1980.
Lynn Klotz is Senior Science Fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a longtime member of the Scientists’ Working Group on Chemical and Biological Weapons Control. He is co-author with Ed Sylvester of Breeding Bio Insecurity: How U.S. Biodefense is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk, and Making Us All Less Secure, The University of Chicago Press, October 2009.
According to the World Health Organization, seasonal influenza viruses spread throughout the world in a year or two, infecting 10 to 25 percent of the world’s population and causing some 290,000 to 650,000 deaths. With a world population of about 8 billion, the fatality rate is between 0.0036 percent to 0.0081 percent. No wonder seasonal influenza does not seem particularly dangerous to many of us. It is likely that none of us or our close acquaintances will die. On the other hand, if the influenza virus were instead lab-created, somehow released outside the lab into the community, spread worldwide, and caused 290,000 to 650,000 deaths, we would be outraged that some lab caused these deaths.
Why consider the risk of lab accident that releases an influenza virus into the community? Because scientists in various countries continue to make so-called enhancements to these viruses in laboratories. While not all influenzas affect humans, some labs have conducted experiments to modify avian (or bird) influenza viruses in order to make them transmissible to mammals.
Each facility that carries out research on dangerous lab-created pathogens must bear the consequences of any pandemic sparked by their release into the community. There are at least three ways this could happen…
When enacted in 1975, the Biological Weapons Convention had no provisions for monitoring compliance. In the 1990s, a United Nations ad hoc group was formed to draft compliance provisions as a Protocol to the Convention. U.S. President GW Bush withdrew from the ad hoc group discussions in 2001, which prevented enacting the Protocol into international law. The main reason for the U.S. withdrawal was concern over whether biological weapons development could be verified.
When U.S. President Obama was elected in 2008, there was hope among Protocol supporters that it would finally be enacted; however, Obama officials also refused to support the Protocol for the same reason. The inability-to-verify claim misses the important point that the main goal of the Protocol was transparency, not verification. The words “verification” or “verify” do not appear even once in the ad hoc group’s final text (the Chairman’s Text) of the Protocol, and the word “transparency” appears perhaps a hundred times.
Recent unfounded allegations about biological weapons development have threatened the effectiveness of the Convention. This concern, along with arguments for the high importance of transparency in international treaties lay the foundation for revisiting the Protocol, which had provisions for both transparency and for dealing with allegations of biological weapons development.
The focus of this Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article is to provide arguments for revisiting the Protocol. Since much of this discussion happened before the year 2000, the article will also serve as background for those of you newer to biological weapons control and the abandoned Protocol.
In 2017, considerable new data became available that calls for a new calculation of the risk of release into the community of lab-created potential pandemic pathogens. This study focuses mainly on lab-created avian-influenza viruses that have been modified to be transmissible in mammals through the air. These are the most worrisome potential pandemic pathogens because a highly transmissible strain released from a lab into the community could seed a pandemic with substantial worldwide fatalities.
There are at least fourteen facilities worldwide that have created such viruses, here dubbed the “Research Enterprise.” It is calculated that there is about a 15.8% probability of a release into the community from the Research Enterprise for five years of research. Combining the likelihood of community release with the estimated not-insignificant probability of 5% to 40% such a virus could seed a pandemic if the released virus is highly transmissible in humans, we have an alarming situation with a real risk to human lives.
No one can be sure how virulent or airborne transmissible in humans these potential pandemic viruses would be if released into the community. In the best-case scenario, they would soon die out with little to no sickness and no deaths; however, just the possibility of a pandemic dictates that we must proceed with the utmost caution. Put another way; the Precautionary Principle should apply.
This 2019 article examines the role of human error in releases of lab-created potential pandemic pathogens into the community from biosafety level 3 and 4 laboratories. The article focuses on lab-created avian flu viruses that have been modified to be transmissible in mammals through the air. These are the most worrisome potential pandemic pathogens, because a highly transmissible strain released from a laboratory into the community could seed a pandemic with massive world-wide fatalities, thus becoming an existential risk to humanity.
There are at least fourteen labs world-wide who have created airborne-transmissible avian flu viruses. Combining release probability with the not-insignificant 5% to 40% probability such a virus could seed a pandemic, we have an alarming situation. Whatever number we are gambling with, it is clearly far too high a risk to human lives.”
In December 2017, after six years of debate and discussion, the United States government closed a chapter on one of the most controversial experiments in the annals of dual-use research: the creation of an H5N1 avian influenza virus that was transmissible through the air between mammals. That is, the Health and Human Services Department has finally issued new rules governing how it will decide whether to fund similar experiments in the future. While these new rules embody a reasonable set of principles for assessing the risks and benefits of such research, the review process could also be strengthened in several ways to ensure that it is comprehensive and rigorous.
When influenza epidemics and pandemics end, a key reason is that so-called herd immunity prevents further infection in the population. The immune population contributing to herd immunity is comprised of those who have survived the infection and those who have been successfully vaccinated.
The recent 2009 influenza pandemic (pdm09 H1N1) infected 20-27% of the world’s population before it ended. The acquired herd immunity to the virus plus vaccination may not provide protection against new infections from an accidental release into the community of a lab-enhanced more virulent and transmissible strain of pdm09 H1N1. Nearly a billion new world-wide infections with potentially higher case-fatality rates could result since the new strains are more virulent. This is a highly worrisome, large number and should be a concern to all of us.
With the announcement in 2011 of a lab-created potential pandemic pathogen (PPP) transmissible in animals by the airborne route, there is grave concern that an accidental release from a lab into the community could seed a pandemic with millions of fatalities. Three questions reflecting our concerns: Should details of this dual-use research be published? Could lab-created PPPs be accidentally released from a laboratory and seed a human pandemic? Could they be employed as biological weapons?
From the Statement to the States Parties linked above:
“Lab-created PPPs, because they are already present in laboratories around the world, are an urgent focus…Hopefully, the States Parties to the BWC will set in motion a process for overseeing relevant new research and technologies. If the Parties decide lab-created PPPs are within its mandate under Article XII of the BWC, it could speed up the enactment of guidelines and regulations. At the very least, the Parties should be the catalyst to launch discussions for a different international treaty on oversight and regulation of creation and research on highly dangerous agents. In the meantime, since enacting new treaties is an uncertain and long process, Parties to the BWC should pass legislation in their own nations.”
There’s a long list of Syrian officials with blood on their hands — but the culpability goes all the way to the top.
From the report:
“For the first time since President Barack Obama declared in August 2012 that the use of chemical weapons constituted a “red line,” the United States has responded militarily to the Syrian government’s use of these weapons. On the night of April 6, the U.S. military fired a salvo of 59 cruise missiles at Syria’s Shayrat air base, in response to a deadly chemical attack launched from that base earlier in the week. The chemical attack on the northwestern Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, according to first responders on the scene, caused at least 84 deaths and injured more than 500 more.”
On November 7, the Eighth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention will commence in Geneva. Convened every five years, these meetings are an important opportunity to take stock of the treaty and its contribution to the global biosecurity regime.
The bioweapons convention is the cornerstone of the bioweapons nonproliferation regime. Together with the 1925 Geneva Protocol, it upholds a complete ban on the development, production, and use of biological weapons. The norm against these weapons is exceptionally strong. No state openly admits to pursuing a biological weapons capacity, and membership in the treaty continues to grow. Yet while the convention is not failing, it is not flourishing either. It lacks a dedicated forum to assess treaty implications of scientific advances, a robust institutional capacity, organized means of helping member nations meet their obligations, provisions for verifying compliance, and an operational role to respond in cases of a serious violations. The upcoming review conference provides a welcome opportunity to begin rectifying some of these shortcomings.
There has been a dramatic increase in bio-defense activities and in the number of facilities and researchers working with dangerous pathogens around the world. This has generated a number of trade-off risks related to safety, security, responsible science and transparency. The 2016 BWC Review Conference must encourage states to implement stringent national bio-safety, bio-security and dual-use research regulations; task the science advisory group to develop clear, internationally recognized guidelines governing dual-use research of concern (DURC); establish a working group to revise the Confidence building measures; and encourage states to participate in the CBM mechanism as well as more interactive information exchanges such as peer review and compliance assessment.
About two years ago, the White House ordered a “deliberative process and research funding pause” for gain-of-function studies on viruses that “would have enhanced pathogenicity [virulence] and/or transmissibility in mammals via the respiratory route.”
The viruses that are the subject of the order include highly pathogenic Asian influenza viruses that can transmit disease from mammal to mammal by the respiratory route. Such viruses have already been created in the laboratory. If one of these viruses escaped a laboratory, it could seed a pandemic with thousands to millions of human fatalities.
Any review mechanism to make recommendations about the most dangerous research (studies) must take into account risk-benefit, biosafety, biosecurity and other international consequences such as demands for reparations for morbidity and mortality from a laboratory escape. Allowing the most dangerous research to proceed sends a message to other nations that such research is acceptable; and it may send the wrong message that the U.S. is embarking on the most-dangerous-imaginable biological weapons development.
The goal of this proposal is to outline a review and oversight mechanism for making decisions about laboratory-creation of and research on created potential pandemic pathogens. This mechanism should include the ability to ban the most dangerous research.
This 2013-2014 issued study by SWG member, Lynn Klotz, was one of the first risk assessments to quantify the probability of escape from a laboratory of airborne transmissible HPAI, and the likelihood that the escaped virus could seed a pandemic. It was focused on transmission of infection in crowded public transportation where infected individuals would be difficult to trace.
Using results from previous economic studies, the analysis also estimates the economic cost for a lab-made pandemic from a lab escape.
This 2014 issued paper authored by Martin Furmanski presents an historical review of outbreaks of potential pandemic pathogens or similarly transmissible pathogens that occurred from presumably well-funded and supervised nationally supported laboratories. The paper catalogs and provides evidence for laboratory accidents that have actually caused illness and deaths outside of the laboratory in the community.
It was issued during the continuing intense debate over the risks of escape of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) virus made airborne transmissible among ferrets. A laboratory escape could kill thousands to millions of people. Until the appearance of the Furmanski study, it was generally thought that lab escapes causing many deaths were an entirely hypothetical concern.
A shorter version of this paper has been published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
This short 2014 SWG statement to the U.S Congress supported the analyses by two SWG members and notified Congress of our concern over these experiments.
“Research to make highly pathogenic Asian bird flu viruses contagious in humans should be banned.
A number of researchers now have stated their intention to attempt increasing lethality of the already deadly H5N1 and H7N9 Asian influenza viruses. Among their aims is to make the viruses contagious in humans via respiratory aerosols from coughing, sneezing and even normal breathing.
There is a chance that one of these viruses will escape from a laboratory and seed the very pandemic the researchers claim they are trying to prevent…”
This 2010 SWG published paper argued against The Graham-Talent WMD Commission position that the United States must urgently expand its efforts to develop vaccines and other medical countermeasures against potential bioterrorism agents. We disagreed with the commission on both points. The Commission exaggerates the bioterrorist threat and proposes solutions that won’t produce the comprehensive approach needed to strengthen public-health security. This paper was published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
Potential pandemic pathogens, or PPPs, pose a danger that goes well beyond the potential of other hazardous microbes that have made the news. The PPPs are all extremely deadly, highly contagious (or potentially highly contagious) in humans, and not currently present in human populations, meaning it would be a disaster to reintroduce them into the population. Of particular concern are lab-created, mammalian-airborne-transmissible, highly-pathogenic H5N1 avian influenza viruses. In stark contrast to the strict controls on smallpox research, SARS, the 1918 flu virus, and potentially human-contagious H5N1 bird flu are studied in laboratories throughout the world, using less than the highest biocontainment, known as Biosafety Level 4, or BSL-4, and there is no approved and stockpiled vaccine for any of them.
This 2010 Congressional testimony argues that the threat of a biological weapons attack has been overstated by politicians and the US government.
“We do not accept as realistic the BW terrorism threat pronouncements that have been by far the most common in the nation’s political and bureaucratic communities. Overstatement of the threat, i.e. the alleged ease with which people with low skill level operating under less than ideal conditions could achieve catastrophic impacts using BW, only glorifies BW in the eyes of would-be terrorists and makes it more attractive. This increases the chance that we might in fact face a small-scale attack from such groups.”
Unfortunately, with the increasing number of violent terrorist groups there is increased concern that they may gain access to chemical weapons and even biological weapons.
For a number of years, Alan Pearson, when he was Director of the SWG, monitored the U.S. government’s expenditures on biological weapons prevention and defense. This Issued 2008 document is the last year we carried out the analysis. Other NGOs have monitored the U.S. expenditures as well; in particular, the Biological Weapons Prevention Project and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Health Security. This latter compilation, however, omits expenditure by the US Department of Defense.
This February 2008 meeting sponsored by the SWG and three other organizations brought together Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) experts from several nations, non-governmental organizations, and universities. This Meeting Report, written by Alan Pearson, was a much sought after document.
From the document:
“The purpose of the meeting, held in Washington, DC on 25 February 2008, was to facilitate information sharing and discussion among a small group of governmental and nongovernmental experts about the processes used by various governments and government agencies to ensure their compliance with the BWC. Its goal was to increase participants’ understanding of these processes and their underlying rationales, similarities, and differences, as well as to discuss issues surrounding the sharing of compliance-related information… Discussion centered on two related questions: 1) how to develop oversight and review processes that can ensure that one’s own biodefense activities are and remain BWC compliant; and 2) whether and how compliance processes can be designed so as to gain external legitimacy and provide outside observers (other nations, civil society, the general public) with assurance of Treaty compliance.”
This 2008 statement to the U.S. Government Public Consultation on Oversight of Dual Use Life Sciences Research shows that the SWG was one of the first NGOs to propose independent oversight of dual use and dangerous research.
During the Korea War the USSR, China and North Korea accused the United States of having used Biological Weapons. In I998, 13 Soviet Central Committee documents dating from 1953 were obtained demonstrating the charges to be fraudulent. The documents and a detailed history of the allegations written by Milton Leitenberg were published by the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Nevertheless China and North Korea continued to charge the US with having used biological weapons. In 2008 a book chapter by the author summarized the available history of this episode up to that point. In 2013 the first Chinese sources became available demonstrating the BW allegations to be false. The Chinese documents and a commentary were published in this new 2016 ninety-page monograph.
From the study:
“A little remembered aspect of the Korean War is an issue of great importance to those concerned with arms control and allegations of the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), namely nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. During and after the war, North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union alleged that the United States used biological weapons (BW) on an enormous scale in areas of both China and North Korea…[T]he Working Paper concludes that the Korean War BW allegations against the US…were false, a grand piece of political theater.”
The study may also be downloaded.
Milton Leitenberg’s 2005 Strategic Studies Institute U.S. Army War College book makes convincing arguments that the threat of “bioterrorism” is small when placed in global context of the many nonmilitary challenges to national and global security that the United States and other nations currently face and will face in the coming decades.
Another published paper from a member of the SWG, makes a focused argument quantifying the relative risk of an influenza pandemic versus an anthrax attack. The likelihood-weighted risk of a pandemic is much greater than an anthrax attack.
This analysis, along with Milton Leitenberg’s 2005 Strategic Studies Institute book, may have played a role in Homeland Security shifting much of its focus from biological weapons attacks to pandemics.
This 2004 commentary was published in the Journal Politics and the Life Sciences. It was authored by two of the SWG’s Emeritus members, Ambassador James Leonard and Milton Leitenberg. The third author, Richard Spertzel , was the former Deputy Director of USAMRIID. They argued:
“The rapidity of elaboration of American biodefense programs, their ambition and administrative aggressiveness, and the degree to which they push against the prohibitions of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), are startling. The production and stockpiling of biological-weapons agents are not the only criteria by which an offensive biological weapons (BW) program is defined. They are only such a program’s most obvious terminal expressions. Taken together, many of the activities detailed above — most particularly the “Store, Stabilize, Package, Disperse” sequence and the “Computational modeling of feasibility, methods, and scale of production” item — may constitute development in the guise of threat assessment, and they certainly will be interpreted that way.”
The commentary played a significant role in the U.S. government abandoning their idea of making new biological weapons to learn how to defend against them. Furthermore, in response to the commentary and other efforts from the arms control community, the U.S. put together a government committee to examine all biodefense research to assure that it did not violate the BWC, or appear to do so.
in 2003, The SWG was perhaps the first group to sound the alarm over excesses in the US biodefense program from the US overreaction to the 2001 anthrax letters sent to high-level public figures. Before those letters, the SWG was in the frustrating position of trying to draw attention to the risk of biological weapons. With the overreaction of the Bush Administration to the anthrax letters, we curiously we found ourselves arguing instead for restraint.
This SWG 2003 position paper argued that chemical incapacitating weapons are as likely as bullets to cause fatalities. It was written in response to a number of events that brought “non-lethal” chemical incapacitating agents into the news. Most prominently, their use in the rescue of hostages held in a Moscow theater in October 2002, which encouraged advocates of the military development of such weapons since most of the hostages were rescued. Detractors were alarmed that over 15% of the hostages died of effects of the chemical agent (as well as all of the captors, who were executed by security forces while they were comatose).
Such weapons may be on a slippery slope to violations of the Chemical Weapons Convention. For that reason as well, they should not allowed in nations’ military arsenals.
This paper along with the mathematical analysis, Beware the Siren’s Song: Why “Non-Lethal” Incapacitating Chemical Agents are Lethal, helped convince the U.S. and other developed nations to back away from development of “non-lethal” weapons as acceptable weapons under the Chemical Weapons Convention.
This 2000 article published in the magazine Biopharm was the result of over two-year discussions between SWG members and the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. PhRMA is the drug industry’s Washington DC lobbying arm. The article outlines conditions, to which the SWG agreed and under which PhRMA would support the Protocol to strengthen the BWC.
The article was considered a breakthrough because it was the first time that the US pharmaceutical industry stated publically they could support the Protocol if certain conditions were met. Before then, they were steadfastly opposed to the Protocol mainly because of confidentiality, theft, and production-interruption concerns. Furthermore, they were concerned that inspections mandated in the Protocol would make them appear to be in violation of the BWC.
This organizational document marks the beginning of ProMED mail, an e-mail reporting service for the Global Monitoring of Emerging Diseases. ProMED mail was established in 1996 by two Emeritus Members of the SWG, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg and Stephen Morse, and one current member, Jack Woodall.
From the document:
“The emergence and reemergence of infectious diseases as the result of recent and ongoing social and environmental changes urgently calls for a global surveillance system, so that unusual outbreaks can be recognized and controlled at an early stage. Today, it remains a major source of timely reporting of emerging infectious diseases… unlike most surveillance systems, which tend to be centrally run with a hierarchical (vertical) structure, the program is designed to be strongly horizontal, with emphasis on building area networks and local partnerships.”
The document may be downloaded also from the International Society for Infectious Diseases website. It was originally published in Health Policy (Health Policy, 38 (1996) 135-153).