Preparing for Twenty-First-Century Bioweapons

As the Biological Weapons Convention enters its 50th year, involving more nongovernmental organizations can help prepare for a future of weapons and wars that looks different from those the treaty was designed to prevent.

Since the 1970s, the treaty known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) has worked to ban “the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons,” according to the United Nations’ description of the BWC. But recently, the Russian Federation weaponized the treaty itself to give substance to false accusations that US labs in Ukraine were developing biological weapons, stoking tensions in an increasingly heated geopolitical environment. 

The recent weaponization of the BWC shows how the landscape of conflict is changing, and why new approaches are needed to achieve the treaty’s original goals. In June 2022, the Russian Federation invoked Article V of the BWC to force the treaty’s 184 member states to hold a special consultation meeting. Russia wanted the body to respond to previously debunked claims about the existence of US bioweapons programs in former Soviet states, as well as the US delegation’s response to these false allegations. The short-term outcome of the November 2022 UN Security Council meeting is that Russia stood largely alone, with only China supporting its formal accusation that the United States was noncompliant with the treaty. Despite this outcome, it is troubling that legitimate processes in treaties and governmental bodies can be turned towards illegitimate ends: providing platforms for disinformation and forcing countries to pull attention from other important domestic and international policy areas. This episode highlights the difficulties that the countries bound by the treaty are having today, as the BWC tries to stay on top of a changing global landscape that not only includes rapidly evolving capabilities and new actors in the life sciences, but also disinformation. 

In this shifting landscape, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) could play significant roles in nonproliferation and disarmament by functioning as a bridge between official government actors and civil society. They could also support these processes by conducting independent research to enhance transparency and confidence. Already, NGOs such as the investigative group Bellingcat have led the way in building trust and combating malicious disinformation about COVID-19 and chemical weapons use. In the future, NGOs can enable broader engagement, particularly across the Global South, and bring a greater diversity of voices and perspectives to engage with the new opportunities and threats now emerging in the information and biotechnology space. 

NGOs could play significant roles in nonproliferation and disarmament by functioning as a bridge between official government actors and civil society.

The need for NGOs to take an enhanced role stems in part from the difficulties nations face in establishing and maintaining credibility in a world rife with security dilemmas and significant geopolitical friction among major powers. The Russian accusations are but one example. Although the BWC was previously concerned primarily with real bioweapons, recent events, including spurious accusations of the United States being the origins of COVID-19 and suggestions that the United States engineered an outbreak of monkeypox in Nigeria, show that conflicts over information will be part of global considerations going forward. A persistent fog of problematic information could even encourage some countries to develop biological weapons and attempt to obfuscate their use through false flag operations. In this new reality, NGOs can work on both national and global scales to build trust, common ground, and engagement with a range of actors in ways that BWC member states are unlikely to accomplish alone.  

An overview of the Biological Weapons Convention

Biological weapons have been used throughout history—think of medieval forces catapulting plague-infested corpses over fortifications—but in the early 1900s a small number of countries began actively investing in their development. Between 1945 and 2015, fewer than 20 countries “had or attempted to organize programs” to make biological weaponry, according to biological warfare scholar W. Seth Carus. In 1969, US president Richard Nixon unilaterally renounced and dismantled the United States’ biological weapons research and development program, helping to galvanize the path towards the BWC—the first international disarmament treaty to ever ban an entire class of weapons. The BWC was opened for signatures in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. Today, the BWC holds a series of annual and quinquennial meetings where the global community comes together to discuss and highlight political, contextual, and technical topics that may require further consideration and action within the context of the treaty.

Although the 184 signatories, known as States Parties, are the primary actors in the BWC, NGOs also play a significant role, and their participation in the BWC has evolved over the treaty’s 50-year history. Between 1980 and 2016, participation from registered NGOs increased from just three organizations to more than 30 organizations and 70 participants—in large part because States Parties realized that NGOs contain a wealth of knowledge and experience on topics that have direct bearing on the treaty. For example, NGOs can provide independent expertise and information about recent biotechnology developments and first-hand knowledge of the changing landscape of opportunities and risks across developed and developing countries. NGOs also promote dialogue and communicate values, as well as provide connections to key actors and experts. NGOs host side events and deliver statements during BWC conferences, and sometimes also suggest potential policies and actions. Still, of those that could potentially participate, only a relatively small number of NGOs engage in the BWC—and many of those come from a small number of Western countries.

NGOs can provide independent expertise and information about recent biotechnology developments and first-hand knowledge of the changing landscape of opportunities and risks across developed and developing countries.

Encouraging participation from a wider group of NGOs would increase the range of perspectives the forum considers. But issues such as funding, language barriers, and a lack of awareness of the BWC currently constrain broader participation, leading to important gaps in the BWC’s coverage. One significant blind spot is the rapid expansion of participants in the life sciences: groups such as the global Do-It-Yourself Biology (DIYbio) community, which seeks to make science accessible to all people for exploratory, educational, empowerment, and entrepreneurial purposes. The DIYbio community illustrates how certain parts of the life sciences are being democratized, which may change the landscape for both innovation and malfeasance. A second gap is the private sector’s significant role in biotech innovation through biomanufacturing and the bioeconomy. With increased NGO engagement to better understand the state of play when it comes to life sciences opportunities and risks, the BWC could address these weaknesses.

A roadmap for NGO participation 

When this year’s five-year meeting—the Ninth Review Conference—started on November 27, it was expected to be fraught with challenges that are harbingers of those to come. While serving as observers of the BWC, NGOs can help build a steadying environment by conducting activities both within and outside the formal structure of international organizations. Within the BWC, NGOs can engage with States Parties and other interested groups through creating and delivering NGO statements during meetings, highlighting key concerns, and communicating the importance of making sure the norms and practices against the use of biological weapons remain strong. They can also hold side events, where attendees can discuss specific issues and topics that relate to the larger meeting.

NGOs can help build capacity by working independently or with States Parties on advancing ideas that contribute to the goals of the BWC. This can include better leveraging subject-matter expertise through the formation and use of a scientific advisory board and helping promote concepts for novel institutions that seek to close gaps at the intersection of biosecurity, biosafety, and biological weapons.  

One such area is the training of the next generation of interdisciplinary biosecurity experts. Today, this is the domain of several NGOs working independently and in concert with the BWC and other United Nations agencies. For example, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the Council on Strategic Risks both have fellowship programs that provide knowledge, resources, and networks to early-career biosecurity experts to fulfill the stated goals of the BWC. The United Nations’ Youth for Biosecurity program works to increase outreach and education to young scientists in the Global South. And the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Foundation has recently convened groups of experts in the life sciences to discuss strengthening the BWC, particularly as synthetic biology, the bioeconomy, and democratized life sciences grow globally.

As bridges between civil society and official government entities, NGOs are uniquely situated to bring disparate communities together outside of formal structures. A common example of this is the use of diplomatic dialogues between civil society and official (or former official) entities. Through these dialogues, commonly known as Track 1.5 or Track 2.0 diplomacy, NGOs can help create opportunities for conversation and potentially build trust between participating entities. Efforts in this space on the biological side have resulted in the development of products such as the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists, a document that sets forth principles to better promote “responsible science and strengthen biosecurity governance.”

As bridges between civil society and official government entities, NGOs are uniquely situated to bring disparate communities together outside of formal structures.

NGOs can also play an important role in helping build confidence and transparency in BWC processes and outcomes. NGOs have already used a variety of open-source tools and information to find and analyze claims and actions by States Parties and other nations. A prominent example is recent work done by Matt Korda and Han Kristensen at the Federation of American Scientists. In 2021, Korda used satellite imagery to determine that China had been building a second nuclear missile silo field, which “constitutes the most significant expansion of the Chinese arsenal ever,” the researchers write. Bellingcat has also used open-source evidence to investigate and bring light to chemical attacks in Syria and COVID-19 disinformation campaigns. Their successes have sparked interest in leveraging open-source information to increase transparency and confidence-building to address biological weapons threats. The case of Russian disinformation highlights how facts alone do not entirely blunt the impact of active disinformation campaigns. Assessing intent and compliance is a sociopolitical process, which means that NGOs armed with data science tools are invaluable in helping to establish reliable sources of information.

Finally, NGOs can serve as incubators for ideas while providing subject-matter expertise to diplomats within the BWC. Although NGOs could potentially use this capacity to attempt to influence decisions, arms control consultant Richard Guthrie notes that NGOs also work in these spaces “to engage and encourage intelligent debate on the complexities of the subject matter and indeed to learn from the perspectives of the governmental participants so that these can inform debate in other areas.” To this end, NGOs may present historical and policy research to help describe how the past could inform current and future trajectories of the treaty. They may also highlight new communities and advances in how the life sciences are conducted that may ultimately change the contours of biological weapons threats.

Although there are many ways that NGOs can support and facilitate activities and interactions within and outside the BWC, they are not the primary actors in the BWC and are effectively limited in their influence. NGOs that overcome economic constraints and language barriers to be present still can only function as nonvoting participants. Addressing these barriers directly to bring in a broader range of NGO stakeholders would have two significant benefits. First, all BWC participants could have greater confidence in their own understanding of the full landscape of risks and opportunities associated with current developments in the life sciences and their implications for the BWC. Second, embracing a greater range of participants would inculcate greater buy-in from communities around the globe to the disarmament and nonproliferation norms that are enshrined within the treaty.

New resources and perspectives

Assessing intent and compliance is a sociopolitical process, which means that NGOs armed with data science tools are invaluable in helping to establish reliable sources of information.

As the BWC enters its 50th year, it’s time to prepare for a future world with weapons and wars that do not look like those that the treaty was designed to prevent. In this complex process, NGOs can play vital, diverse roles in strengthening the BWC and enlarging the field of global actors that engage with nonproliferation and disarmament. NGOs can bring new resources and perspectives to a daunting task of envisioning how the life sciences themselves may evolve to permit new threats, as well as new means of control. By deliberately engaging participants from the entire world, particularly the Global South, the BWC has an opportunity to gain trust and cooperation at the grassroots level. In these capacities, NGOs may be indispensable in establishing global norms and policies against biological weapons threats and continuing the considerable success of the BWC in an unknown future.

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Cite this Article

Lim, Yong-Bee, Kathleen M. Vogel, and David Gillum. “Preparing for Twenty-First-Century Bioweapons.” Issues in Science and Technology (December 8, 2022).