Current and Past Issues of the Biological Weapons Convention and what to Expect in 2016

In Blog, English by Maximilian Mayerhofer1 Comment

An overview of how the BWC came into existence, its development since the end of the Cold War and an outlook of what to expect from the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference 2016 .

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was the first multilateral disarmament treaty, banning an entire category of weapons in 1972 and has become instrumental in the disarmament goals of the United Nations. The advancements in the field of bioscience, the ease of access to information and the low cost of biotech operations skyrocketed the danger of bioterrorism.  At the same time, these trends have made procedures, once worthy of a Nobel Price a daily business, increasing the sophistication of these weapons while lowering the threshold to develop them.


The first draft of the BWC was implemented on 26 March 1975, with 22 states ratifying the convention. A review cycle of 5 years (Article XII BWC) was defined to assess its effectiveness, to evaluate current R&D in biotech and to facilitate adjustments in global biodefense policy.

The BWC covers all current and future scientific and technological developments. It applies to all international, national and non-State actors, bringing the issue of bioterrorism within the scope of the Convention. A landmark achievement in its development was permitting the World Health Organization to coordinate emergency response measures in cases of the alleged use of biological and toxin weapons. Since the politics of Cold War diminished trust in interstate relations, doubts regarding the compliance with the convention emerged. This led to the creation of a Formal Consultative process, establishing an annual mechanism for information exchange, known as Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs).  CBMs aim at curbing the occurrence of ambiguities and encourage international cooperation in the field of peaceful biological activities.

The Third Review in 1991 determined the inclusion of biological agents relating to humans, animals and plants, re-examining national implementation measures. The United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Javier Pérez de Cuéllar conducted investigations into allegations of the use of bioweapons. He asserted that information on the implementation of Article X (BWC) on peaceful uses of the biological sciences should also be provided to the United Nations. As a result, an Ad hoc Group of Governmental Experts for identification and examination from a scientific and technical standpoint (VEREX) was established.

VEREX assesses the advantages and disadvantages of the BWC recommendations that define prohibited activities and evaluates their impact on regulations for research and development.

In September 1993, VEREX submitted its report, noting that applying a combination of measures would be much more effective in enforcing the BWC than enacting any single all-purpose regulation. However, the United States firmly rejected the proposal in 2001 fearing that jurisdiction would infringe upon biodefense research in the private sector. As a reaction to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the subsequent threat of anthrax attacks, the decision was made to hold annual meetings in addition to the 5-Year-Review-cycle. This aimed at ensuring common understanding and effective actions on a range of topics.

The Sixth Review (2006) concluded that the BWC applies to all relevant scientific and technological developments now and in future and completely prohibits the use of biological weapons by anyone, anywhere at any time for any purpose. Its biggest achievements was the creation of the Implementation Support Unit (ISU), a taskforce, providing an online platform for submitting CBMs, allowing participating states to update information and to build stronger “civilian” scientific relationship with one another.

The Seventh Review (2011) focused on increasing the preparedness on bioterrorism and infectious disease outbreaks, by establishing an open-ended working group to meet annually for combating outbreaks, improving the implementation of BWC in national agendas and strengthening research ties amongst the states.

Image 1 – Participation in the BWC (light green = participants), Source: wikipedia

Image 1 – Participation in the BWC (light green = participants), Source: wikipedia

Currently 173 states have ratified the BWC, with Austria being one of the earliest signatories adopting the Convention on 10 August 1972. Currently, the Convention consists of 15 Articles.

Biodefense has become a staple element within EU & NATO, for example by regular supervision of national biodefense and public health institutes through the Health Threat Unit of the European Commission. This illustrates the deep level of implementation on various levels of national security and health

The development outlined shows that the BWC has expanded its mandate from an effort to ban biological weapons to covering accidental releases of agents due to lab-accidents or natural occurring diseases.

WHAT To expect from 2016

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line. Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus budding from the surface of a Vero cell (African green monkey kidney epithelial cell line.
Credit: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

In View of the 2009 H1N1 outbreak, the recent Ebola crisis, and the Zika-virus looming, there is still a long way to go for a better coordinated answer to biological threats to human health and security.

According to a WHO Representative Ebola looks tamed, but containment efforts were lacking efficiency and speed.

Since the origin after an incident is unknown at the beginning, implementing public health into the BWC agenda is the next step in addressing this rising challenge in biological hazards.

During the recent Ebola crisis the White House stated that “The U.S. has built, coordinated, and led a worldwide response to the Ebola outbreak while strengthening our preparedness here at home.” This course of action blurs the line between public health and bio weapons safeguards even further.

In this process, two representatives of the U.S. and the Russian Federation brought new ideas in the table

However, Daniel M. Gerstein, former deputy undersecretary in Science and Technology of the Department of Homeland Security warns that including pandemics in the BWC can lead to severe drawbacks:

“In doing so, authorities may have lost sight of the fact that properly prepared biological weapons do not act as naturally occurring disease. In fact, biological pathogens could be prepared and deployed so that resulting infections have barely any semblance to the natural forms of the diseases. Overwhelming doses at the point of attack, and even at long distances downwind, as in the case of an aerosol delivery, could be thousands of times the “lethal dose.” In such cases, the resulting disease could be so severe that even medical countermeasures such as vaccines, antibiotics and antivirals could be rendered ineffective. This shifting emphasis ,…,show the progression from biological warfare and attacks,…, to a more nuanced approach to biodefense, which includes both deliberate attacks and naturally occurring disease in the Lieberman-Ridge report. It is these deliberate uses of pathogens that are the focus of the Biological Weapons Convention.”Daniel M. Gerstein from RAND Corp.

By adding more policy, the danger arises of adding just more mass to the whole organism, without functionality and rendering the whole program unmovable.

Gerstein also addresses the Administration of the U.S. directly by saying:

“The time to deal with these issues is now. The United States should clearly establish its goals and objectives in this new and evolving environment and build coalitions to help meet them. A successful review conference is critical to promoting global preparedness and response capabilities against a potential biological warfare attack, either from a rogue state or a bioterrorist.”Daniel M. Gerstein from RAND Corp.

In 2014 the Russian Federation under Vladimir Ladanov, a political analyst and member of the Russian Delegation of the Organization for Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, made a proposal at the annual meeting of experts, reconsidering compliance issues and discussing a legal binding protocol for the convention after it was revealed to the public that the US Military was shipping anthrax and bubonic plague to South Korea since 2009.

This survey asked one question:

Are you in favor of strengthening the Convention based on a legally binding instrument to be developed and adopted by States Parties pursuant to the mandate agreed by consensus at the Special Conference in 1994, if not all States Parties to the Convention shall become Parties to the Protocol:

  1. Yes
  2. Yes, but there are conditions (please specify, if possible)
  3. No, but this may change depending on circumstances (please specify, if possible)
  4. No

This proposal achieved positive feedback, many favoured a resumption of negotiations for a legal binding protocol.

In Russia’s view the purpose of the instrument, or Protocol, is to generate added value for States Parties by strengthening the BWC and improving its implementation. Structurally, the Russian vision was of an implementing agency – the organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW) – with a professional Technical Secretariat (TS). The OPBW would be responsible for:

  1. Investigations of alleged use of biological and toxin weapons
  2. Investigation of suspicious outbreaks of disease
  3. Assistance and protection against biological and toxin weapons
  4. Promoting international cooperation for peaceful purposes
  5. Confidence building measures (existing or potentially enhanced formats
  6. National implementation
  7. Monitoring science and technology developments

Since 2006 the EU has been strengthening its commitment to the BWC by implementing a Joint Action as further action in hindsight to their WMD strategy, while not giving any more information about what “Joint Action” actually means.  In addition, the Council sought to further enhance the effectiveness of the CMB´s by improving the UN´s mechanism for investigating cases of alleged use of biological weapons and providing additional personnel for the Implementation Support Unit as well as the technical and legal support to implement BWC in individual member states. Since then, the EU became the biggest contributor to the BWC in Geneva.

On a national level, Germany launched the German Partnership Programme for Excellence in Biological and Health Security implementing sustainable biosecurity projects in partner organizations and institutes around the globe in 2013.

Furthermore, the Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology will host the 15th Biodefense Conference from 26th – 29th April, reviewing the military actions during the Ebola crisis and further strategies of preparedness.

Unfortunatly Austria has not yet made any effort by looking at biosecurity. The only contribution, according to the Austrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was a small seminar within the Diplomatic Academy Vienna in 2015, but unfortunately no further information is available on the topics of this seminar. Austria appears to be stuck in a Cold War mentality focused on nuclear defence neglecting biological warfare. This lack of initiative appears problematic in view of the ongoing challenges the international community is confronted with.

The BWC has developed remarkably since its first adoption in 1972. Still, it be adapted to modern R&D achievements and built in the national security protocols of biodefense. The implementation of disease politics (Ebola) into the agenda of the BWC should not be seen negatively, but more as means in achieving an all-embracive biodefense policy. The Eighth Review Conference bears the chance of making the next step to this all-embracive biodefense in December 2016.

The opinions voiced in this article belong to the author and do not reflect the position of as a whole. Authors bear responsibility for the correctness of their statements, the data provided and the originality of the content.

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About the Author
Maximilian Mayerhofer

Maximilian Mayerhofer


Max is a student at University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna with a focus on biomedicine and biotechnology. His interests include Infection biology, biodefense, as well as genome engineering. He currently works in the MoD in the fields of microbiology and molecular biology.

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