1 November 2010

The convergence of biology and chemistry: Implications for arms control verification

Jonathan B. Tucker

Tucker manages the Biosecurity Education Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS). Trained in biology and security studies,...

As biological and chemical production technologies grow increasingly interrelated, the implications of this convergence for preventing the spread of biological and chemical weapons are becoming more serious. The author writes that the routine verification regime of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) does not cover biologically mediated production processes or the synthesis of most natural toxins by chemical means—gaps, he says, that are likely to expand as these technologies advance. To address the implications of convergence for biological and chemical disarmament, CWC member states should enhance the treaty’s verification measures. The author suggests that a panel of experts should examine the technical feasibility and cost-effectiveness of using biotechnological methods to produce classical chemical warfare agents; that CWC parties should increase the total number of inspections of declared chemical industry facilities that can be conducted per year in a member state; and that the scope of CWC verification should be broadened to cover production by chemical or biological means of natural peptides and structurally related molecules, some of which are highly toxic. Although efforts to update the CWC verification regime will face political resistance, he writes, it would be short-sighted to ignore this problem until determined cheaters start using undeclared biotechnology plants to manufacture chemical warfare agents, or exploit the chemical synthesis of bioactive peptides to develop a new generation of biochemical warfare agents.