As bioweapons negotiators prepare to meet amid a pandemic and torrents of disinformation, can they accomplish anything?

By Yong-Bee Lim | July 15, 2022

Representatives to the Biological Weapons Convention meet. Representatives to the Biological Weapons Convention, the international treaty banning bioweapons activity, meet in 2015. Credit: Eric Bridiers/US Mission Geneva. CC BY-ND 2.0.

One fall day in 2006, Alexander Litvinenko, a Russian defector who once worked in Moscow’s secret intelligence community and who became a prominent Kremlin critic in the United Kingdom, ate sushi for lunch before meeting with two former colleagues from his spy agency days at the Pine Bar in London’s Millennium Hotel. The anti-corruption crusader was reportedly set to travel to Spain to investigate the Russian mob there. But just a few short weeks later, Litvinenko was dead. He was poisoned by a radioactive substance in his tea called polonium-210, allegedly mixed in by his former security service colleagues.

Litvinenko’s poisoning preceded a handful events, ranging from assassinations to large-scale chemical release attacks, that involved the use of unconventional weapons in the last several years—a dangerous indication that certain governments are both working on these weapons and showing an increased willingness to use them. Meanwhile, Russia has mounted an increasingly aggressive disinformation campaign that accuses the United States of harboring an illegal bioweapons program, a claim that credible sources have noted is not substantiated by fact. It adds up to a troubling picture: Important norms against the use of chemical weapons have already eroded, and norms against the use of biological weapons may be next. One of Litvinenko’s alleged killers, Andrei Lugovoi, is now celebrated as a hero in some Russian circles and is a deputy in the Russian Duma, or parliament.

The fraying of the norms against the use of biological and chemical weapons couldn’t come at a more important time.

The Biological Weapons Convention, the treaty that bans the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, and transfer of biological weapons, is up for its every-five-years review at a time of both serious geopolitical friction and serious evidence of the risks that biological events like the COVID pandemic can pose.

It could be a moment to re-invigorate arms control and make the world safer from the risks of biological threats; it is clear there are big issues for negotiators to tackle. However, there is also a possibility that this might not happen. Like all political institutions, the bioweapons treaty has its share of challenges, including finding common ground among countries with diverse goals and interests.

Treaty members have every incentive to cooperate and make real progress, but the negotiators face the widest range of possible outcomes from the November review conference. The meeting may result in little to no progress, which could increase the perception among some people and treaty members that it is ineffective. There could also be a stunning success, with negotiators pointing to a concrete path forward on important issues such as compliance with the treaty and better mechanisms to address the new bioweapons threats that emerging technologies and the current trajectory of the life sciences could create. Realistically, the outcome is likely to be somewhere in between: an outcome where members take small, but concrete steps in addition to affirming their commitment to the treaty for the next five years and agreeing to meet on big issues between the major review conferences.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon decided that the United States would unilaterally dismantle its offensive biological weapons research and development program, which included antipersonnel agents such as anthrax and tularemia as well as incapacitating agents such as the pathogens that cause brucellosis and Q-fever. The convention entered into force in 1975.

Unconvinced that the United States had really given up its program, the Soviet Union secretly maintained a massive bioweapons research and production infrastructure throughout the Cold War. The country produced mass quantities of pathogens and developed ways to disperse diseases like anthrax, smallpox, and plague through missiles and other delivery systems. It wasn’t until 1992, after the fall of the Soviet Union, that then Russian President Boris Yeltsin acknowledged the illicit program and ordered it closed. However, a recent US government assessment notes that Russia maintains an offensive biological weapons program to this day.

Every five years, the members of the treaty, which now includes 184 countries, meet to plan for the next five years of treaty implementation. The review conferences have propelled major policy advances in the past. For example, after the 1996 review conference, treaty members agreed to a process for exchanging annual reports on their biological activities. One of the greatest challenges for the treaty has been the inability of countries to reach some sort of agreement on a means of verifying compliance, a significant issue given that countries have been accused of violating it in the past. The United States rejected a major proposal for verification in 2001 after deeming it too intrusive for its biopharmaceutical industry and biodefense programs. Many countries now hope to fuel economic growth by developing their biotech and pharmaceutical industries and may share similar concerns to those that led the United States to reject the verification proposal in the early 2000s.

This year’s review conference is an important year for the treaty. Negotiators heading to Geneva, Switzerland, this fall know full well the devastation of biological events. COVID-19 has killed millions of people and continues to spin off dangerous new variants with alarming regularity. Monkeypox, a disease that was once rarely seen outside of a few African countries, is now breaking out in countries around the world, laying bare continuing flaws in infectious disease response policies.

Meanwhile, a Russian disinformation campaign is in overdrive, trying to spin US aid to Ukraine and elsewhere for public and animal health as bioweapons programs. Add to that the head-spinning advances in science that create new so-called dual-use risks via technology that can be used for peaceful or non-peaceful purposes, and the world seems awash in biological risks. Experts and negotiators agree that the bioweapons treaty should play an important role in reducing these risks.

“While COVID-19 was not the result of a biological weapon, the pandemic is a wake-up call for all of us,” Bonnie Jenkins, a top US diplomat for arms control, said in 2021. “We need to address not only the latest challenge, but those that may lie ahead, whether natural, accidental, or deliberate in origin. To do so, we must strengthen the [Biological Weapons Convention].”

Bioweapons expert Jez Littlewood noted that four discreet outcomes are possible at the upcoming review conference. On the one hand, the meeting could reach an inconclusive end. Review conferences generally close with an agreement that re-affirms the treaty and includes so-called “additional understandings,” which,  Littlewood wrote earlier this year, “interpret, define or elaborate the meaning or scope of a provision of the [treaty] or provide instructions, guidelines or recommendations on how a provision should be implemented.” Given the level of global acrimony, it is possible that treaty members will not agree to anything. This outcome may dent the prestige of the treaty and lead to a defunding of the small Implementation Support Unit that serves as an administrative office that implements and supports all 184 members in activities related to this agreement.

On the other hand, the meeting could end with tangible progress on major priorities. Treaty members could agree to form working groups to discuss thorny issues like assuring compliance with the treaty or even sanction negotiations around these issues. The United States, Russia, and China have each suggested interest in strengthening compliance mechanisms within the treaty, after negotiations around a verification protocol fell apart in 2001. “The three countries have different visions, but share the idea of having specialized working groups explore how to strengthen and revitalize the treaty.” Littlewood and biosecurity expert Filippa Lentzos wrote in the Bulletin in March.

Most likely, however, international divisions will prevent the treaty members from accomplishing the ambitious possible outcomes and they will instead make incremental progress. They may, for example, find ways to provide greater staffing to the administrative unit that supports the treaty, which currently has just three employees (compared to hundreds or thousands in organizations that manage nuclear or chemical weapons treaties).

On the surface, obstacles like Russia’s recent decision to air its claims about a US bioweapons program to treaty members in the months before the review conference may make achieving positive outcomes more difficult to achieve. But, as Robert Gates, a secretary of defense for former President Barack Obama, has noted, politicians can engage in excessive performative theater during open hearings, but can be thoughtful and insightful behind closed doors. Factors like the ongoing pandemic could push treaty members together. Let’s hope that happens.

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