04/16/2008 - 11:19

The need to quickly define law-enforcement agents

I wonder why my colleagues in the United States seem to focus on the threat of terrorism when discussions of bioweapons surface? I suggest that we turn our attention to states with advanced industrial capabilities--the greatest concern when discussing the possible production, proliferation, and use of novel agents such as "the body's own bioweapons." Terrorists will likely continue to make use of more readily available options: explosives, toxic industrial chemicals, or classical chemical warfare agents.

This does not imply that scientists should neglect research on future bio-threat agents or on their countermeasures. This research is essential for obvious reasons. The broad group of potential bioweapons presented by Jonathan Tucker consists of many possible new agents, including bioregulators, psychoactive agents, and substances that can affect the human immune, cardiovascular, or gastrointestinal system. These agents fall into several categories of chemicals, and scientists will need to develop countermeasures to such agents, to decrease human vulnerability and increase survivability.

According to Alan Pearson, increased interest in incapacitants will generate pressures that lead to the use and proliferation of weapons deemed good enough; a redefinition of acceptability will follow. I agree, and for this reason such developments should be addressed within the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The further this discussion is delayed, the more complicated and difficult it will become. But is it possible to distinguish between chemicals and delivery systems for use in law enforcement and those that are to be used as chemical weapons? Before we enter into a discussion on verification measures, and limits in general, States Parties need to define law enforcement substances. Otherwise they could seek to legitimize the use of a wide range of substances or, as Ralf Trapp suggests, try to exploit gray areas in the margins of their legal undertakings. Tucker's proposal to establish an advisory panel to decide what chemicals and equipment is acceptable for use in law enforcement is a reasonable suggestion. It is also time to ask if law enforcement substances--a broad term--should be treated differently than riot control agents.

Once these questions have been resolved, then we can consider developing a verification system that accounts for the risks of bioweapons such as bioregulators. This will be challenging since some States Parties as well as advanced biotech companies oppose a comprehensive verification scheme. The objective would be to establish limits on the types and quantities of toxic chemicals, such as law enforcement agents, and internationally acceptable measures for monitoring and verifying these limits. The rapid development of new technologies should enhance the focus on solving these important matters, because it will take time to introduce control measures. If we ignore the potential of incapacitants as described by Tucker, then we will weaken the fabric of the CWC and possibly open the door for a resurgence of chemical weapons.