What the fight against disease can teach the biological weapons community

By Malcolm Dando | October 18, 2011

On September 10, 2011, the London Observer newspaper carried a long, affectionate portrait of former US President Jimmy Carter. The author wrote of Carter’s life before, during, and after his presidency — noting approvingly, for example, that Carter didn’t start any wars while in office. But my attention was drawn to some of the work Carter embarked on with the Carter Center after he left office. Instead of adding to the efforts of other organizations that deal with the big menaces to human health, such as HIV and malaria, the center has tried to help tamp down some lesser-known nasty diseases, such as Guinea worm. When the Carter Center started to work on Guinea worm eradication, there were 3.5 million people affected by this debilitating parasite. Last year, according to this article, there were just 1,797 cases, and these were mostly in South Sudan. Indeed, the author remarked, “It looks set to be only the second (after smallpox) disease ever eliminated.”

That is true for diseases that directly affect human beings, but there is another story of disease elimination this year that, whilst it has not directly affected human beings, has certainly caused untold misery in the past. Therefore — including on-the-brink-of-eradication Guinea worm and smallpox — there are actually three devastating diseases that have been wiped out by determined, cooperative action. I would not be surprised to find that most readers know that smallpox of course was the first disease to be eradicated. I would be surprised, however, if many readers knew that the second disease to be eradicated was in fact Rinderpest. Even in this period of increased interest in international cooperation on global disease and in the run-up to the Seventh Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in December, Rinderpest remains an unheralded exemplar of the possibilities for progress under the aegis of international cooperation.

Like the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Chemical Weapons Convention, the BWC, in addition to its mission to prohibit dangerous biological agents, has an Article X on international cooperation. The Article states:

1. The States Parties to this Convention undertake to facilitate, and have the right to participate in, the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes. …

2. This Convention shall be implemented in a manner designed to avoid hampering the economic or technological development of States Parties to the Convention or international cooperation in the field of peaceful bacteriological (biological) activities, including the international exchange of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins and equipment for the processing, use or production of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes. …

And yet, seven articles earlier, in Article III, we have:

Each State Party to this Convention undertakes not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever, directly or indirectly, and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any State, group of States or international organisation to manufacture or otherwise acquire any of the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment or means of delivery specified in article I of the Convention.

It does not take a rocket scientist — or a molecular biologist! — to see that there is a problem embedded in the Convention: Is international cooperation acceptable or not? And, sure enough, this tension between Article X and Article III has long caused dissent among States Parties and could be a cause of difficulties in the upcoming Review Conference. These mutually exclusive articles on customs of international cooperation caused trouble at the last review conference: A late attempt to agree on an Article X action plan, which was linked to another action plan — on national implementation — failed to find consensus. Therefore, thinking through the nature of cooperation under the remit of different international organizations, and what kinds of cooperative efforts it might be most appropriate for the BWC to undertake, is important in order to avoid more complications at the upcoming review conference.

Which brings us back to Rinderpest. When the United Nations announced last June that Rinderpest had finally been eradicated, it was a victory for international cooperation — one that offers some lessons and guidelines for what might be done under the umbrella of the BWC. Rinderpest, a Morbillivirus closely related to measles, is well-documented to cause devastating destruction of cattle and the consequent social and economic disasters for the people who depend on them; unsurprisingly, it was also considered as a biological weapons agent in the last century. Like smallpox, Rinderpest could cause great epidemics when affected cattle were moved into areas where cattle had long been free of the disease. The consequences were so profound that the epidemics triggered many systemic attempts to deal with the disease, such as the founding of the first school of veterinary medicine in France in 1761 and the creation of the World Organisation for Animal Health after a huge European outbreak in 1924.

Gradually, scientific advances — like the development of a heat-stable vaccine and a rapid diagnostic test — laid the necessary groundwork for success in eradication. Also key to the disease’s elimination was long-term, well-designed, and determined fieldwork, often in very difficult and dangerous conditions. But there was something else as well: Wiping out Rinderpest has required a Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme run by the United Nations with large-scale financial support from the international community, including approximately €340 million from the European Commission since 1960.

Clearly, this is not the kind of task or scale that would be appropriate for the BWC to undertake. Still, Rinderpest demonstrates the magnitude of the impact that international collaboration can have on biological threats. At the 2010 meeting of States Parties, the BWC illustrated what it is capable of when there was agreement, for example, on the importance of improving national capabilities and the importance of international cooperation on improving diagnostic capacities, laboratory networks, and information sharing. Progress might indeed be possible at the December review conference: A small expansion of the Implementation Support Unit could allow information sharing to function, in part, as a clearing house to facilitate broader international collaborative objectives. As with Rinderpest, cooperation is critical, because hazardous biological agents don’t recognize national borders.

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