Biological warfare and the pandemic

Starting the conversation…

John Freeman, former Deputy Director-General of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and a former Chair of the BWC Meetings of Experts and of States Parties in Geneva. He is currently a Visiting Professor at King’s College, London

The Covid-19 pandemic has rightly called into question the scope and adequacy of existing national and international strategies for prevention and – should prevention fail – planned responses to such highly transmissible viruses. What has received less attention is the extent of the international community’s capacity to sound the alarm and counter the impact of a deliberate and malign use of bio-agents by states directly or via terrorist groupings.

The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is the international normative instrument enshrining the prohibition on the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons and their destruction. Unlike the legal instruments governing the dual-use nuclear and chemical technologies, the BWC is without a supervising organisation and provision for international verification of compliance. The Covid-19 pandemic and the potential for malign use of bio-agents should serve to underline the urgent need to remedy this verification deficit in one way or another. The most obvious and comprehensive option would be to revive past efforts to agree a verification protocol to the convention. This was nearly achieved in 2001 but at the last minute the draft protocol was blocked by the US (needless to say some other states were happy to hide behind the US). Whether or not there is a change of administration in Washington, there is an upcoming opportunity in 2021 to address this issue and it should be grasped.

The next BWC Review Conference on the operation of the Convention will take place in the second half of next year. That should be the time and chance to set in motion a revived BWC process leading to agreement on verification provisions and on the establishment of an organisation to monitor their implementation. If Covid-19 helps re-focus the international community on those goals it will be better placed to ensure enhanced transparency and lessen future BW risks.

Responses…

Philip Towle, Emeritus Reader of International Relations at the University of Cambridge

Dr Freeman has rightly drawn attention to the need to attach provisions for verification to the Biological Weapons (BW) Convention which bans their production. The requirement has increased following the Covid-19 pandemic because it has shown how much fear, death and chaos can be caused by an infectious virus.

Spreading disease will appeal to puritanical terrorist groups determined to shut down “hedonistic” Western societies with their love of music, travel and consumption. Islamists have targeted concerts, beaches and shopping centres. They will have noticed how Covid-19 almost halted international tourism and disrupted cinemas, theatres and art galleries. In 1995 millenarian Japanese terrorists staged an attack with the chemical agent, Sarin on the Tokyo underground killing 12 and injuring many more. It had previously experimented with BW and other chemicals. Six years later a lone US terrorist posted anthrax spores killing five and wounding 17. CBW threats from such groups or lone terrorists need to be taken seriously.

Totalitarian states will have noticed that it is easier for a government, like their own, with brutal and effective social control, to end a pandemic than for democratic societies with strong individualist traditions. This is particularly true for those, like the United States, where many are suspicious of their own government. A desperate, autocratic government involved in a losing conflict with the US might be tempted to weaken or distract its enemy by spreading disease. We know that the Japanese army experimented with BW on unfortunate Chinese in Manchuria during the Second World War, that the Soviets produced anthrax in Sverdlovsk in the 1970s and that Saddam Hussein had an embryonic BW programme. We may abhor and fear such weapons but that is why we need a tougher BW Convention to try to expose breaches in the treaty.  

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