27 September 2012

Getting to bioweapons consensus

Malcolm DandoKathryn NixdorffAlexander Kelle

Malcolm Dando

Malcolm Dando is a biologist researching international security at the University of Bradford’s Department of Peace Studies with a...


Alexander Kelle

Kelle is senior lecturer in politics and international relations in the Department of Politics, Languages, and...


Kathryn Nixdorff

Nixdorff is a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Genetics at Darmstadt University of Technology, Germany. Her research has focused on molecular aspects of the interaction between...


At the Seventh Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) Review Conference in Geneva last December, the treaty's 165 member states agreed to a new intersessional process of work to be done in preparation for the next such conference, in 2016. This new process retained the limited aim ("to discuss, and promote common understanding and effective action") of the previous two intersessional processes, but it did restructure the convention's annual meeting of experts and state parties within the process. These meetings will now include three standing agenda items, one of which involves the review of "developments in the field of science and technology relevant to the convention." Several sub-items are to be covered under this item, including "voluntary codes of conduct and other measures to encourage responsible conduct by scientists, academia and industry" and "education and awareness-raising about risks and benefits of life sciences and biotechnology."

Although they are presented in the anodyne prose of the UN bureaucrat, such agreements to address substantive ways of dealing with potentially dangerous advances in the life sciences do not come about by chance. Rather they result from determined work by many stakeholders -- among them, diplomats from 12 states party to the convention, including representatives from the United Kingdom and the United States -- who produced a working paper for the most recent review conference on possible approaches to education and awareness-raising among life scientists. The paper summarized many projects carried out on this aspect of the sciences and technology agenda during the 2007 to 2010 intersessional process and laid the foundation for discussion and possible agreement on actions that might be taken in the Eighth BWC Review Conference in 2016.

The question, however, is whether the revised structure and its standing agenda items can be used to make faster progress on developing common understanding and, in particular, effective action on science and technology developments that might endanger global security.

Expert optimism. The first Meeting of Experts in the new intercessional process, held in July in Geneva, followed the previous review conference by just seven months, so there was not a great deal of time to prepare for the revised structure. But in interviews with delegations from a diverse set of countries, we found widespread optimism that good progress could be made. Moreover, the media attention to the debate on the publication of the papers on mammalian transmissible H5N1 influenza should produce more public attention to issues relating to the potential misuse of advances in the life sciences than there has been in the past. Certainly, diplomats have considerable flexibility to modify their proceedings and make a real impact in their discussions if they wish to do so.

The UN website contains extensive documentation on this summer's experts' meeting, including the report of the meeting, communications from the chairman, statements by state parties and nongovernmental organizations in attendance, and presentations made by invited states and guests. Some experts at the meeting suggested that one way to analyze data presented during the meeting would start with the assumption that, because states party to the Biological Weapons Convention face similar problems in dealing with scientific change, they should be able to agree on the nature of the key issues and develop a range of approaches to deal with these issues during the intersessional process. The Eighth BWC Review Conference could then decide what common features of these different approaches were worth implementing by all states. So were there any indications of such coherence at the July 2012 Meeting of Experts? To be clear, it is not being argued here that consensus will happen; political differences and the complexity of the issues could prevent agreement. But there were hints of how the experts hope that consensus might be achieved.

On the process side of the BWC intersessional program, there seems to be a clear differentiation between the two types of annual meetings, with the experts presenting and discussing proposals and the states party to the treaty concentrating more on what should be done about the proposals. On the action side of efforts to strengthen the convention, one area seemed to dominate discussion. As the press release for the meeting put it, "[o]f particular note was the consideration of the recent publication of two scientific papers detailing mammalian transmission studies for H5N1 avian influenza. Participants repeatedly stressed the need for more work to determine where the optimal compromise between scientific freedom and legitimate security concerns might lie."

Potential future directions. The chairman's synthesis of the perspectives, recommendations, conclusions, and proposals made at the meeting are set out in Annex 1 of the Final Report, under eight headings. Some of the listings under these headings are more concerned with monitoring developments in the life sciences, but others -- such as those on voluntary codes of conduct and on education of researchers about the dangers of misused science -- seem more likely to include proposals for action. For example, the United States Working Paper 6 says that "[e]ducation and outreach are perhaps the best tools States Parties can use to sensitize life science practitioners to security issues", and the United States proposed that the 2012 Meeting of States Parties to the Convention should "[i]nvite the scientific community, academia, and industry to share their views on how governments and the [convention] can better support them in education and other efforts to reinforce the culture of responsible science."

Perhaps this proposal begins to show how the new framework with standing agenda items can be used to produce cumulative, sustainable progress on key issues related to strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention. There is a great deal of evidence, recognized in previous BWC meetings, that most practicing life scientists have little understanding of the convention or of the possibility that their benignly intended work could be misused for hostile purposes. It is highly unlikely that scientists will effectively take part in the development and implementation of oversight systems or codes of conduct found necessary to deal with the problem of dual use if they remain largely unaware that there is even a problem.

This proposal -- that the states party to the treaty focus later this year on how best to put that education in place so that their scientists are able to engage in the efforts of protecting their work from misuse -- can be followed up in later meetings. Perhaps then, when states report what they have done and what has been successful, best practices in regulating dual-use research and products in the life sciences can quickly evolve.

Editor's note: Research for this article was carried out under UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office strategic programme fund grant SPF000211 to Alexander Kelle, University of Bath, UK.