Recent Papers and Important Archived Documents

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 historic 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 Here, key unpublished-issued and published papers may be accessed in their entirety from this website.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 year they were issued or published.

Some of the earlier documents list the Federation of American Scientists as the SWG’s parent organization. About ten years ago we moved to the Center for Arms Control and non-Proliferation.

Click on the titles below to access each document.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons Kill Chain

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.”

The report may be accessed on the Foreign Policy website.

Global Monitoring of Emerging Diseases: Design for a Demonstration

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).

Implementing the Biological Weapons Convention Protocol in the United States: What It Means to the Biopharmaceutical Industry

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.

Secret Biodefense Activities Are Undermining the Norm Against Biological Weapons

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.

Chemical Incapacitating Weapons Are Not Non-Lethal

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.

Guest Commentary: Biodefense Crossing the Line

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. The guest commentary may also be downloaded from the Politics and the Life Sciences website.

Assessing the Biological Weapons and Bioterrorism Threat

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, Casting a Wider Net for Countermeasure R&D Funding Decisions, 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.

Both these analyses may have played a role in Homeland Security shifting much of its focus from biological weapons attacks to pandemics.

The Criterion for Identifying Dual Use Research of Concern

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.

Federal Funding for Biological Weapons Prevention and Defense, Fiscal Years 2001 to 2009

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.

Ensuring Compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention: Meeting Report, July 2009

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.”

Biological threats: A Matter of Balance

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 has been published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Outline of a Presentation on Behalf of the Scientists’ Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs

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.

The Human Fatality and Economic Burden of a Man-made Influenza Pandemic: A Risk Assessment

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.

Laboratory Escapes and “Self-fulfilling prophecy” Epidemics

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.

Scientist Working Group Statement to the U.S. Congress

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…”

China’s False Allegations of the Use of Biological Weapons by the United States during the Korean War

During the Korea War the USSR, China and North Korea accused the United States of having used Biological Weapons. In I99813 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 from

A Proposed Oversight and Decision Mechanism for Creating and Researching Potential Pandemic Pathogens of Concern

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.

It’s time to modernize the bioweapons convention

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.

A Role for the BWC in Oversight of Lab-created Potential Pandemic Pathogens

Research by Ron Fouchier and Yoshihiro Kawaoka marked the beginning of a “research enterprise” for creating potential pandemic pathogens (PPPs) in the laboratory. To date, perhaps more than thirty-five laboratories are creating or researching lab-created PPPs.

This research has spawned two parallel intense debates: (1) Should details of this dual use research be published? (2) Could these pathogens escape from the laboratory and seed a deadly human pandemic?

This probably of escape into the community from one of the labs in the research enterprise is uncomfortably high, as a world-wide pandemic with tens-of-millions of deaths could be seeded.

Moreover, the possibility has been raised by authoritative sources that lab-created, mammalian-airborne-transmissible highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses could be used as biological weapons. For these and other lab-created PPPs, any quantity, however small, could seed an outbreak with means of delivery just one or a few infected people.

There is urgent need for international regulations over some of this research. Since there is only a small likelihood of hostile intent based upon academic research creating or researching lab-created PPPs, the BWC is likely not the international treaty to take action.  But the Parties to the BWC could be the catalyst to launch discussions for a different international treaty, on oversight and regulation of work on agents that would not make useful tactical weapons but could potentially escape and cause serious harm.  Whenever a new case arose, the treaties would need to discuss the possibilities and decide which treaty—or both—is relevant.

Risks, Trade-Offs and Responsible Science

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.