Biodefense Research Could Violate Weapons Conventions, Report Warns

Source: By Martin Matishak | Global Security Newswire

Member states to the Biological Weapons Convention must be careful not to violate their commitments to the pact as they conduct research activities and seek to defend themselves against bioterrorism, according to a think tank report issued this week (see GSN, July 24). 

Image Credit | Associated Press

Image Credit | Associated Press

“There is growing recognition that states parties engaged in biodefense research and development activities must take active steps to ensure their own compliance with the convention and to effectively reassure others of their compliance,” according to the document released Monday by the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

The Biological Weapons Convention entered into force in 1975 and today has 162 member nations. The treaty prohibits development, production, stockpiling and use of weaponized disease agents such as anthrax, smallpox or plague, as well as equipment and delivery systems intended for hostile use.

The report is the result of a Feb. 25, 2008, conference aimed at facilitating information sharing and discussion among a small group of governmental and nongovernmental experts about the processes used by various agencies to ensure compliance with the treaty.

Participants examined and summarized in great detail the compliance mechanisms of Australia, Canada, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Annual U.S. funding for research and development of medicines and other countermeasures to biological agents has increased from roughly $580 million in fiscal 2001 to more than $3 billion by fiscal 2007, according to the center. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks the government has spent or allocated nearly $50 billion among 11 federal departments and agencies to address the threat of biological weapons

The significant growth of biodefense research and development programs over the last decade, coupled with failure by member states to establish a verification protocol to ensure compliance with the treaty, has placed “new pressure” on the prohibitions contained in the compact, according to the report. It does not specify what activities have put pressure on the treaty.

Some experts have said that almost any activity conducted with “defensive intent” would be allowed by the convention. However, others argue that the issue is more complex and that some ostensibly protective research could lead to development and proliferation of biological weapons, the study says.

“When one is doing bioresearch and biodefense, one has to be careful to not overstep the treaty itself,” independent analyst Gerald Epstein, who participated in the 2008 meeting as a senior fellow for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said yesterday in a telephone interview.

He cited the U.S biodefense effort Project Bacchus — an investigation by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency to determine whether it was possible to build a bioweapons production facility using readily available equipment — as an instance where questions were raised if the treaty had been violated.

The type of biodefense activity that is most likely to raise questions regarding treaty compliance is “threat assessment,” the process of determining what type of biological attacks are most likely to occur, he told Global Security Newswire. A dangerous biological agent could inadvertently be developed during such research, Epstein said.

“If one had perfect intelligence and a perfect ability to predict the future, one could base threat assessment on intelligence, and no scientific research or technical activity would be needed to assess or characterize biological threats,” he wrote yesterday following the interview. “In the real world, where intelligence is imperfect and the ability to make predictions quite limited … one has to make assumptions about what the threat might entail.”

Epstein added it is difficult to determine what kind of research could cause a violation because “the treaty is not at all specific about what’s prohibited.”

Last year’s conference focused in part on whether compliance processes can be designed to gain legitimacy and assure outside observers, including other nations, that biological research and defense operations are not being turned to weapons production.

Epstein described a compliance process as a system under which technical activities are evaluated to determine where they meet international obligations.

Participants noted that enhancing the confidence of outside observers can be a “formidable challenge” but compliance review processes could support that process, according to the report.

The document does not specify what a universal compliance review would entail. Some participants said the value of such a procedure would be increased by national laws criminalizing behavior banned by the convention, though not every nation could be expected to sign on for such measures.

“Even if one doesn’t have much faith in the process of a given country, outside observers would nonetheless gain more insight into that country’s activities if it had a compliance review process in place than if it did not,” the document says.

Epstein said the compliance process could be broadened if governments provide assessments of biological research or defense operations by separate agencies that do not have a stake in a given project. It also could be augmented by including nongovernment inspectors or international partners.

While greater transparency is important, the definition differs from country to country. Participants in the 2008 workshop decided that more transparent governments would need to lead by example even though their efforts would be complicated by the fact that there will never be complete transparency of all biodefense activities, the study states.

Epstein said absolute transparency is impossible as countries do not want to disclose what secret projects they might be working on or possibly highlight their own weaknesses.

“Full transparency works fine when you’re fighting nature … nature does not read the newspaper. It’s not looking at plans but deliberate enemies” are, according to Epstein, who served in the White House Science and Technology Policy Office during the Clinton administration. “When you’re doing biodefense you cannot ever share everything you’re doing.”

The new report does not specify which governments are considered more transparent. Epstein said the United States is “by far the most transparent on defense issues” as the Defense Department publishes its budget every year.

The experts meeting also addressed development of oversight and review procedures that could ensure a country’s biodefense activities remain compliant with the rules of the convention. The group laid out three “treaty interpretation principles.”

The first states that “compliance assessments should proceed from the presumption that biodefense activities must be shown to be justified under the terms of the BWC, rather than from the presumption that biodefenses activities must be considered compliant unless shown to violate the terms of the treaty,” according to the report.

This principle neither requires nor precludes formal review and justification of every individual biodefense activity, the report states.

That interpretation “goes to the heart” of determining compliance, Epstein told GSN. “That’s not something you can go to the treaty to find out; it’s how you approach the treaty.”

The second principle states that biodefense research activity should be shown to be both “useful and critical” for a “prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purpose,” the document says. It defines a useful activity as one that aims to increase the ability of a country to protect itself against biological weapons, while a critical activity is one that would significantly increase that ability.

Epstein said he believes that principle can be met by a country demonstrating how it would be better protected through biological research.

In the third principle — on which the report notes there was “significant disagreement” among the meeting’s 15 participants — the group asserted that there should be an independent review and assessment of biodefense research and development activities for compliance with the convention.

Some participants felt formal interagency compliance reviews within government are not “necessary or feasible” because technical reviews by the agency conducting the sensitive activities already generate transparency. In addition, an interagency review would add unacceptable delays and complexity and would be too resource intensive for the external agency or agencies conducting the review, they argued.

Others suggested interagency review should not be done as a matter of course, but that there should be a formal procedure for reviewing projects that closely approach the line between compliance and noncompliance.