Improving global response to biological weapons of mass destruction
On Aug. 17, the Department of Defense released its updated Biodefense Posture Review designed to achieve “a resilient total force that deters the use of bioweapons, rapidly responds to natural outbreaks, and minimizes the global risk of laboratory accidents.”
The Biodefense Posture Review and other authoritative U.S. and foreign government strategies emphasize that countering these threats requires comprehensive international deterrence and defense measures.
Meanwhile, global representatives are meeting this month in Geneva in a complementary effort to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention, or BWC. The convention is a vital international security tool.
When it went into force in 1975, the BWC was the first multilateral treaty to ban an entire class of weapons of mass destruction. Adherents commit not to develop, produce, stockpile, acquire, transfer or employ offensive biological weapons. Any biological research activity should be intended only for peaceful purposes.
Until recently, the urgent need to fight COVID-19 preoccupied such initiatives, but now that the World Health Organization has formally declared the pandemic over, the international community should take advantage of this respite to augment global defenses against future biological threats.
Although most governments have joined the BWC, several have yet to accede to the convention.
Some states have encountered challenges in fulfilling all their national obligations. Meanwhile, the United States remains concerned that some countries have undeclared biological weapons programs. Terrorists have also employed bacteria, viruses, and other harmful agents.
The advancement of biological science and emerging technologies — such as gene editing, gain-of-function studies, quantum computing, artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, 3D printing and advanced robotics — facilitates their acquiring biological weapons.
In addition, governments can maintain small quantities of dangerous pathogens to develop countermeasures against them, creating a loophole for weapons research. Most problematically, many modern biotechnologies are “dual use” — applicable for military as well as civilian purposes.
Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the BWC lacks a dedicated body to monitor and enforce compliance. Past efforts to establish a mandatory verification regime were unsuccessful.
Governments that suspect a violation can only call for consultations to resolve disputes or appeal to the U.N. secretary-general and Security Council to investigate.
Furthermore, the BWC has only a small Implementation Support Unit, based at the Geneva branch of the U.N. Office for Disarmament Affairs, to help administer the treaty. Unlike the International Atomic Energy Agency or the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons), which have thousands of employees and million-dollar budgets, the Implementation Support Unit has a small staff and a minuscule budget.
The international community has struggled to manage these challenges to the BWC. One innovative solution comes from Kazakhstan, whose government has long been a global nonproliferation leader.
Soon after recovering its independence in 1991, Kazakhstan eliminated the world’s fourth-largest nuclear arsenal it inherited from the Soviet Union, acceded to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, and joined the Central Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone.
At Kazakhstan’s initiative, the U.N. General Assembly declared Aug. 29 the International Day Against Nuclear Tests. In cooperation with the IAEA, Kazakhstan recently became the first country to establish a low enriched uranium bank to discourage the proliferation of capabilities that can make nuclear weapons.
Kazakhstan has sought to apply its nuclear nonproliferation experience to counter biological threats.
Upon gaining independence, Kazakhstan acceded to the BWC and dismantled the massive biological weapons infrastructure the Soviet government constructed on its territory. The U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program provided extensive financial and technical aid to help eliminate or convert these facilities to engage in defensive research, including developing local COVID-19 tests.
The U.S. Defense Department and Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Health still conduct regular discussions and programs to counter biological dangers.
In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly in September 2020, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev proposed creating an International Agency for Biological Safety.
The agency aims to help the BWC, U.N., and other bodies keep biological research peaceful and transparent; improve global health and safety; build state capacity; accelerate the development of vaccines and biological countermeasures; establish more inclusive export control mechanisms; expand international trust and cooperation through improved accessibility of confidence-building measures, known as CBMs; and maintain a database of potential assistance to states threatened by biological attack.
The Agency for Biological Safety would overcome other critical BWC gaps. For example, while countries can share information about their biological activities through CBMs such as detailed questionnaires, these submissions are voluntary and underused.
If the safety agency could provide for regular review of these CBMs and analyze their aggregate data, member governments would have a better understanding of the state of BWC implementation.
The agency could also support further initiatives — such as societal means of verification, voluntary peer reviews, and AI-assisted training and open-source data mining — to increase global surveillance and make states more confident about receiving international assistance. Early detection of natural, accidental and deliberate biological threats is imperative for mounting effective defenses.
The agency could also counter the kind of disinformation that has poisoned discussions of COVID-19 by supporting a more institutionalized and frequent international review of biological developments. That Kazakhstan has decent relations with Russia, China and the United States should help the proposal overcome the power divisions that have impeded recent progress on other nonproliferation initiatives.
The Biodefense Posture Review correctly highlights the imperative of enhancing U.S. and allied defenses against biological threats. The United States and other countries should also consider initiatives to strengthen the BWC and other nonproliferation structures.
• Richard Weitz is senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.