Biological and Toxic Weapons

News Date: 17 Aug 2015

Led by Polish Academy of Sciences, the IAP Biosecurity Working Group (BWG) also includes academy representatives from Australia, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. As well as reviewing the latest advances in the biosciences and their implications for biosecurity and carrying out awareness raising activities, the IAP BWG also has a seat as a nongovernmental organization (NGO) at UN meetings of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and aims to provide timely inputs into the deliberations of the States Parties to the convention.

Some 173 nations have ratified the BWC, with Andorra and Mozambique being the most recent. However, with recent rapid advances in the life sciences, along with ‘warnings’ from regional and global outbreaks of infectious diseases such as SARS, bird flu and Ebola, there are worries that the current processes of the convention do not adequately take into account developments in science and technology. Many States Parties also argue that there is not enough attention being paid to strengthening cooperation and assistance, especially to developing nations – something that signatories to the convention have undertaken to do.

The Meeting of Experts convened in Geneva, Switzerland (10-14 August 2015) aimed to discuss these issues and to take forward recommendations to the 8th BWC Review Conference scheduled for late 2016.

To investigate the implications of advances in the industrial bioscience sector, and then to review advances in bioscience research, the IAP BWG, and especially the US National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, organized an information-sharing workshop on ‘Advances in Design and Use of Microbial Production Systems: A Workshop for the BWC Community’. Held on 9 August, prior to the main meeting at the UN, the workshop attracted some 30 participants, including delegates from such countries as Canada, Malaysia and South Africa.

Workshop participants concluded that, although new advances in biotechnology, such as gene editing, could be used for non-peaceful purposes, a certain amount of tacit knowledge is still required. And although the costs of manipulating genes and organisms in the laboratory setting continue to fall, scaling up the results to industrial-level production is fraught with difficulties linked, among other constraints, to procuring inputs of guaranteed quality. Therefore, although the potential always exists for the non-peaceful use of biotechnology, in practice there are still significant barriers to overcome. There was also general agreement that advances in biotech research, such as the development of new vaccines, can provide great benefits, for example through the development of new vaccines, and that advances in science and technology can also help in the implementation of the BWC.

On 10 August, during a side event to the BWC Meeting of Experts hosted by Switzerland and attended by some 80 participants, Katherine Bowman, US NASEM, presented these deliberations.  Participants also heard an overview of how science feeds into a parallel UN convention, the Convention on Chemical Weapons, as well as how open access sources of information can be useful in helping to identify and verify potential manufacturing sites for bioweapons. The side event finished with Piers Millet of the UK-based Biosecure Ltd presenting his review of the current BWC science and technology review process, noting that it is not adequate and should be reconsidered and revitalized by the time of the 2016 Review Conference.

In this regard, many of the NGOs present called for the establishment of an open-ended working group on S&T that would meet for one week each year to review the latest scientific developments and their implications. The results of this meeting could then be fed into the main meeting of policy-makers without the need for a lot of associated technical detail. Such a move would answer many of the concerns raised in the plenary session by representatives of States Parties. In his intervention on behalf of the IAP BWG, Ryszard Slomski, Polish Academy of Sciences and chair of the BWG, called for more awareness-raising activities to be implemented, for example, by engaging with national agencies such as academies of science.

Representing both TWAS and IAP, IAP coordinator Peter McGrath again highlighted IAP’s support role in the activities of the BWC, but also focused on the capacity-building efforts of TWAS that are especially targeted towards young scientists living and working in developing countries. He also introduced delegates to the concept of science diplomacy and highlighted some of the activities undertaken to date under the TWAS Science Diplomacy programme. Together, all these programmes offer possibilities for collaboration in the implementation of different aspects of the BWC such as cooperation between States Parties, awareness raising and technology transfer. The presentation is available online HERE.

In a second intervention, on 12 August, Slomski informed the States Parties that the IAP BWG was organizing a workshop to be held in Warsaw, Poland, in September, hosted by the Polish Academy of Sciences with the support of the UK’s Royal Society and the USNASEM. The deliberations by exerts in the fields of the potential production, dispersal and delivery technologies of biological agents and toxins will be fed back into the BWC process in time for the next meeting of States Parties in December this year, he confirmed.

Finally, in another side event, Jo Husbands, USNASEM and also a member of the IAP BWG, took part in the presentation of a new biosecurity textbook, ‘Do No Harm: Safeguarding Science in the 21st Century’. Husbands and her colleague Katherine Bowman have prepared a chapter in the book focusing on ‘The Role of Scientific Organisations in Promoting Biosecurity: Case Study on IAP’. The textbook will be released later this year in both English and Arabic and will available online.

Through the work of its BWG, IAP will continue to follow the developments of the BWC, especially proposals on how up-to-date science information can best be transmitted to the policy-makers, as discussions advance to the late 2016 8th Review Conference of the Convention, thus ensuring that the voice of science and of its member science academies is heard at the decision-making level of this important UN agreement.

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For more information about the IAP BWG, including updates on its activities, please visit: www.iapbwg.pan.pl

For more information on the BWC Meeting of Experts, visit: www.unog.ch/bwc/meeting or search for #BWCMX2015 or #1972BWC on Twitter