an area of the map for world news.
January 2002 issue of
World Press Review
(VOL. 49, No. 1)
and Technology: Biological Weapons
Trust but Verify
Mishra, The Hindu (conservative), Madras, India, Oct.
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 Doesnt
Need Us, Joy has predicted that the coming age of biotech
will undoubtedly make programmable bacteria and viruses more
accessibleto doctors, business, and bio-terrorists. The
things which we are worrisome about havent 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 sporesa dormant phase of a bacillus that multiplies
rapidly in the body, producing toxins and rapid hemorrhagingby
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 Husseins weapons of mass destruction.
With Iraqi officials grudgingly cooperating from 1991 to 1995,
the UNSCOM team found loads of circumstantial evidencefacilities
with a high capacity for fermentation inconsistent with peaceful
purposes as well as irreconcilable recordsall 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
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 secretsvaccines 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 well
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.