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2022 Next Gen for Biosecurity Competition Challenge: Developing New Verification Strategies for the Biological Weapons Convention

Nearly a half-century after the world came together to approve the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), Russia’s unfounded allegations of biological weapons research facilities in Eastern Europe have piqued global interest in this summer’s review conference of the long-standing treaty.

Entered into force in 1975, the BWC prohibits the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling, and use of biological and toxin weapons. While establishing a stringent global norm against biological weapons, the treaty still lacks a strong verification protocol.

Today, leaders preparing for the BWC’s Ninth Review Conference in August are exploring whether the global community can leverage increased attention and political will to strengthen the BWC by building mechanisms that increase transparency and trust with the goal of reducing the risk of global catastrophic biological events. A particular aim is determining whether there are effective and politically viable ways to enforce the treaty.

The question also is fundamental to NTI | bio’s work and as a result is the focus of this year’s Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition.

Competing teams have been asked to explore the issue by answering:

  • What should “verification” mean for the BWC?
  • What barriers to verification protocols exist or have previously existed? What risks are associated with maintaining the status quo?
  • What are potential approaches for a verification protocol from both scientific and technical perspectives?
  • What types of policy proposals can increase the likelihood of adopting a verification mechanism?

BWC experts explored these questions during a 2022 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition webinar on March 24th. Moderated by Joshua Monrad, an NTI Consultant, researcher at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, and a 2020 Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition winner, the webinar provided an overview of this year’s competition prompt and requirements. Panel discussions explored the importance of verification under the BWC, private sector involvement in the design and implementation of any effective mechanism, and the need to engage countries of differing technological resources in the process.

Verification Protocols for the Biological Weapons Convention

Panelists included Jeremy (Jez) Littlewood, senior policy analyst with the Government of Alberta, Canada; Ryan Morhard, head of Policy and Partnership at Gingko Bioworks; and Melanie Reddiar, chief director at the Secretariat of the South African Council for the Non-Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction.

To set the stage for this year’s competition, Monrad asked panelists about the effectiveness of the BWC in reducing global catastrophic biological risks (GCBRs). Reddiar noted the Convention provides “a platform for reducing GCBRs” but questioned its effectiveness without a verification protocol.  She highlighted that States Parties have varying forms of BWC-related legislation resulting in inconsistent implementation and decreasing the Convention’s global efficacy. Building off Reddiar’s comments, Littlewood emphasized the BWC’s role as one part of the anti-biological weapons regime, praising the clear prohibitions and obligations within the Convention. He noted the Convention’s lack of a verification protocol allows it to be more flexible in responding to new advancements in science and technology when compared to other related arms control conventions, though this also highlights a significant gap in the Convention’s reach.

Considering the biggest obstacles to developing an effective verification protocol, Morhard discussed the wide application of biotechnology and the growth of the bioeconomy. With novel applications of biotech in new industries, Morhard said “there is a greater opportunity than ever to have a world that’s safer against biological emergencies,” but also noted that biological risks are expanding at an unprecedented rate as well. Reddiar discussed the importance of clarifying that dual-use controls are not intended to stifle innovation and growth but instead aim to promote peaceful use and innovation of technologies.

The moderator asked panelists how countries with differing technical capabilities are involved in conversations about verification. Reddiar noted the challenges of balancing countries’ differing objectives. She framed the Convention as an opportunity for countries with different rates of technological development to work together, including through regional groups, to develop concrete global biosecurity improvements.

Littlewood listed causes for optimism in strengthening the BWC into the future, including the opportunity to leverage technological advancements made over the past 20 years. He emphasized that BWC verification, if successful, will not be like other arms control efforts and instead would need to focus on “managing risks and thinking about governance of technology.” Morhard warned against developing verification protocols in a vacuum and encouraged competition participants to “build a verification approach that reflects new technology, reflects the broader bioeconomy,” and provides incentives to all parties to build confidence in the BWC’s implementation.

Reddiar said she was hopeful the competition can serve as a platform for young people to develop “a culture of nonproliferation and biosecurity” early in their careers adding that those new to the field should not be afraid to develop, share, and shape new ideas. Morhard agreed, adding that young people have every reason to be confident in their ideas. He noted the willingness of those in the field to engage with students and early career professionals and said seasoned biosecurity experts will be counting on younger professionals in the future.

Information About the Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition

Now in its sixth year, the Next Generation for Biosecurity Competition offers an opportunity for students and early career professionals to contribute to the global conversation around verification measures for the Biological Weapons Convention. In partnership with the Next Generation for Global Health Security (GHS) Network (NextGen), the iGEM Foundation, SynBio Africa, and the Global Health Security Network (GHSN), the winning team will have its paper published on the NTI website and have the opportunity to present during a side event at a prestigious global health security event.

More information on eligibility and submission requirements can be found on the competition page. Additional information regarding finding a team is available at this link. Submissions to the competition are due by April 18, 2022 at 11:59 PM ET and must be sent by email to [email protected]. Winners will be announced in June 2022.

The full recording of this event, including the virtual panel for this year’s competition, can be viewed here.

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