Science and Technology: Biological Weapons

Trust but Verify

Biotechnology holds the promise of a great future but like any other technological breakthrough, it is a double-edged sword. Modern technologies that add efficiency, power, and wonder to our lives inevitably deliver the same benefits to evildoers. According to Bill Joy, chief scientist at Sun Microsystems, “The tragedy of Sept. 11 was nothing like what might be possible with biological weaponry.” In his forthcoming book titled Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us, Joy has predicted that the coming age of biotech will undoubtedly make programmable bacteria and viruses more accessible—to doctors, business, and bio-terrorists. “The things which we are worrisome about haven’t happened yet.”

The need to prevent future terrorist attacks with bioweapons takes on greater importance given the proposed fifth Biological Weapons Convention Conference in November in Geneva. At the conference 140 countries that have ratified the convention will discuss a 210-page draft protocol document and declaration affirming the treaty. It would account for the threat posed by biological weapons in the hands of terrorists. America is more worried about biological arms than nuclear or chemical ones.

Unlike either of the other two, biological weapons combine maximum destruction and easy availability. Nuclear arms have great killing capacity but are hard to get; chemical weapons are easy to get but lack such killing capacity; biological agents have both qualities. A 1993 study by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment concluded that a single airplane delivering 100 kilograms of anthrax spores—a dormant phase of a bacillus that multiplies rapidly in the body, producing toxins and rapid hemorrhaging—by aerosol on a clear, calm night over the Washington, D.C., area could kill between 1 million and 3 million people, 300 times as many fatalities than if the plane had delivered 1,000 kilograms of sarin gas.

Even though they have received less attention than the other weapon systems, biological weapons probably pose the greatest danger to humanity. Innovations in biotechnology have obviated many of the old problems in handling and preserving biological agents, and many are freely available for scientific research. Nuclear weapons are not likely to be the choice for non-state terrorist groups. But the unthinkable is now possible. Terrorists are proving to be great innovators. Thousands of scientists and technicians are busy designing and producing weapons loaded with deadly microbes, such as anthrax. In 1992 then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the Soviet Union had run a vast enterprise called Biopreparat. As this disclosure made clear, the Soviet Union had ignored the ban on offensive weapons in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, which they had ratified two decades earlier.

Bioweapon experts say the entire Biological Weapons Convention could become a lost opportunity. A quarter of a century after coming into force, the treaty remains the weakest of the international arms-control agreements. The problem: It has no mechanism for checking whether parties are obeying the ban on developing biological weapons. Other agreements on nuclear and chemical weapons have established technical systems for monitoring compliance. The difficulties of monitoring Biological Weapons Convention compliance came into focus after the Gulf War, when the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) went to work in Iraq to ensure the elimination of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction. With Iraqi officials grudgingly cooperating from 1991 to 1995, the UNSCOM team found loads of circumstantial evidence—facilities with a high capacity for fermentation inconsistent with peaceful purposes as well as irreconcilable records—all pointing to a broad, clandestine program aimed at “weaponizing” bacteria, viruses, and toxins. We need to have a radar screen to identify and monitor potential trouble spots. Formally known as the Protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention, such a measure would include mandatory investigation of facilities suspected of contravening the treaty as well as visits to declared facilities that are not under suspicion, plus export controls on organisms and technologies that might be used to develop biological weapons.

The draft protocol of the 210-page document would, among other things, allow a future protocol body to mount random transparency visits at declared facilities in precisely defined categories, including maximum containment (bio safety level 4) labs, vaccine, facilities, biodefense shops, and plant pathogen containment laboratories. If a facility were suspected of contravening the treaty, the protocol would permit challenge investigations, in which teams of up to 30 investigators would be allowed to remain on site for 84 hours for a lab visit, or 30 days to investigate an alleged field release of a bioweapon. Ironically, the United States is partly responsible for this state of affairs. It has consistently and strongly objected to the inclusion of verification procedures in the Biological Weapons Convention Treaty of 1972, which would have given teeth to Biological Weapons Convention. Driven by the concerns of the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, the Bush administration is worried about the inadvertent leakage of trade secrets—vaccines in development, for example.

In all, 140 countries have ratified the convention since it was hammered out almost 30 years ago, but the treaty contains no provision for verification. Attempts to develop a verification plan began in 1995. It was hoped that the latest draft, released in March 2001, would address the concerns of many participants, including the United States. The United States is developing a range of measures to counter bioweapons and seems intent on relying on these defenses rather than backing the convention. But Matthew Meselson, a molecular geneticist at Harvard University and a U.S. government adviser, warns that such an approach could augment suspicions that the United States has something to hide. “There is a huge cost if we just walk away and say we’ll look out for ourselves,” he says.

In the coming months and years, America and the world must prepare for a long fight. To sustain this fight, the Biological Weapons Convention ratification of draft protocol, which incorporates some verification and export control mechanisms, will help pre-empt a possible bioweapons attack.