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Governance of biological threats

How are high risk biological agents regulated and governed? Associate Professor David Heslop discusses some of key aspects.
© UNSW Sydney
The governance of high risk biological agents and Dual Research of Concern technologies and activities has been a key priority of governments, research institutes and concerned individuals.
The main framework for governance of biological agents is the Biological Weapons Convention, originally signed in 1972 and now with 178 nations party. The Biological Weapons Convention was proposed after prolonged international efforts to improve on the provisions of the first international agreement controlling biological agents – the Geneva Protocol of 1925, also known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. While the Geneva Protocol is accepted as a general prohibition of the use of biological weapons, the protocol was silent on the key issues of the production, storage, transport of biological weapons. These shortcomings were one of the main reasons for the development of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.
The Biological Weapons Convention has 10 main articles. They are:
  • Article I: Never under any circumstances to acquire or retain biological weapons.
  • Article II: To destroy or divert to peaceful purposes biological weapons and associated resources prior to joining.
  • Article III: Not to transfer, or in any way assist, encourage or induce anyone else to acquire or retain biological weapons.
  • Article IV: To take any national measures necessary to implement the provisions of the BWC domestically.
  • Article V: To consult bilaterally and multilaterally to solve any problems with the implementation of the BWC.
  • Article VI: To request the UN Security Council to investigate alleged breaches of the BWC and to comply with its subsequent decisions.
  • Article VII: To assist States which have been exposed to a danger as a result of a violation of the BWC.
  • Article X: To do all of the above in a way that encourages the peaceful uses of biological science and technology.
Compared to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention has been criticised for not having a verification mechanism included. Through the 1990s significant efforts were undertaken to introduce some form of national verification mechanism. Termed Confidence Building Measures (CBM), yearly reports are submitted by party states providing an assessment of compliance with the provisions of the convention and outlining any activities that could fall outside of the provisions, and measures taken to ensure compliance. Due to the voluntary status of CBM submissions, only a minority of nations routinely submit these reports.
In addition to the Biological Weapons Convention, a wide range of other governance and regulatory measures have been implemented either internationally or my individual nation states or regional blocs. These include legislative instruments that control the import and export of key technologies required to undertake biological weapon development, codes of practice, compliance and assurance frameworks, population and workplace health and safety legislation, scientific codes of conduct, ethical frameworks and wider policies prohibiting the development of weapons of mass destruction or mass effect. Additionally, a key component of the United Nations framework includes robust support of disarmament efforts, training of inspectors, and frameworks for ensuring compliance with both international and national codes.
The recent seventh review of the Biological Weapons Convention, in November 2016 in Geneva was unfortunately not able to reach consensus on new measures designed to strengthen the Biological Weapons Conventions provisions for taking action against breaches, or to cooperate more effectively between nation states in preventing biological weapon development. The persistent difficulties in strengthening the BWC encountered at the review conferences has been the cause of controversy and comment in the biological research community, and has complicated efforts to improve governance of other related activities such as DURC and synthetic biology.
After reading this article, in the comments section below discuss your answer to the following question:
Reflect on the 10 articles of the Biological Weapons Convention. What kind of verification mechanisms do you think would best ensure compliance with the convention?
© UNSW Sydney
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Biosecurity and Bioterrorism: Public Health Dimensions

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