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Weapon-Usable Tech Seen Challenging Bioweapons Convention

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON -- An array of advances in science and technology threaten to undermine the Biological Weapons Convention by enabling a nefarious actor to engineer disease agents to be more virulent or resistant to medical countermeasures, treaty signatories said on Friday.

Growing capabilities to render pathogens more communicable, immune system-resistant, or honed to specific targets also "have the potential for use contrary to the provisions of the convention now or in the future," states the final report from the annual meeting of BWC member nations in Geneva, Switzerland. The document cites synthetic biology and emerging bioagent dispersal technologies as additional concerns.

Such advances "will bring both benefits and challenges for the convention which may require action by states parties," according to the document issues on Friday.

Still, participants resolved to encourage "the fullest possible exchange of dual-use technologies where their use is fully consistent with the peaceful object and purpose of the convention."

The Biological Weapons Convention outlaws the development, production and stockpiling of weaponized disease agents and toxins. This week's meeting was attended by 101 member nations, along with five observer states; it was part of the "intersessional process" of meetings between the BWC review conferences held every five years.

Delegates over five days addressed four key issues: peaceful biological cooperation among nations, scientific advances of note in relation to the accord, national implementation of convention rules and governmental confidence-building measures.

The document urges BWC member nations to bolster "national oversight" of weapon-sensitive studies without limiting the exchange of systems and data for benign use, and to pursue further dialogue on the matter through treaty forums.

No single institution wields sole responsibility for addressing possible biological threats from scientific advances, Richard Lennane, head of the BWC Implementation Support Unit, said in advance of the meeting.

"There have been meetings springing up all over the place of people trying to work out what to do about this issue," Lennane said last week in a telephone interview, noting separate related events planned by the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

Treaty members separately acknowledged "technical difficulties" faced by certain signatory governments in carrying out trust-boosting activities with sufficient speed and completeness, and they resolved to pursue a more "user-friendly" information sharing process as well as related education initiatives.

Member nations also reaffirmed the importance of national export management and other measures needed to prevent breaches of the BWC nonproliferation regime. "States parties agreed to continue to work to strengthen national implementation, taking into account differences in national circumstances and legal and constitutional processes," according to the final report.

Biological weapons expert Richard Guthrie, though, said participating nations had "watered down" the document. He highlighted its failure to acknowledge a French proposal for nations of similar size to examine each other's procedures for implementing the convention. Instead, it includes a more ambiguous call for "the voluntary exchange of information among states parties, including in light of various proposals made by states parties."

Paris is set early next year to allow international scrutiny of its own implementation activities under the proposed "peer review" process, Guthrie said. The voluntary mechanism would enable states in similar positions to "learn from each other" without committing to follow specific procedures, and "even for that reference to be watered down is a bit frustrating," he said.

The report also makes no reference to the seemingly moribund hope for establishing a verification body to monitor states' compliance with the accord.

"On the issue of verification, the U.S. objections to discussing it remain as strong as ever," Guthrie, who filed daily reports from the meeting, told Global Security Newswire. "There was never really any chance of it being discussed as a substantive item in any of the intersessional meetings, although many countries made statements in support of legally binding verification measures of one form or another."

The United States has been a leading opponent of a binding verification mechanism, arguing in part that such an operation is not feasbile given the highly diffuse and complex nature of the biological science research sector.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. State Department on the result of the BWC meeting.

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