Washington — The five Americans killed in 2001 by anthrax spores hidden inside mailed envelopes offer a dramatic demonstration of the threat from a biological weapons attack. Worldwide, more than 300 people have died from H5N1, also known as avian flu, since the pandemic virus was identified in 2003. For both situations — a deliberate attack or a natural worldwide pandemic — the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is the mechanism that the international community can use to prevent and mitigate widespread disease.
Representatives from the 165 states that are party to the BWC will meet in Geneva beginning December 5 for the convention’s seventh review conference, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will be the first U.S. secretary of state to attend the meeting.
Clinton will present U.S. ideas on how countries can increase their capability and cooperation to detect and respond to disease outbreaks, as well as build up a “conscious culture of responsibility” among the global scientific and industrial communities that will prevent the misuse of biotechnology, according to Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Thomas Countryman.
The United States also wants to see the review conference agree on ways to strengthen BWC implementation and to encourage transparency and confidence-building measures, not only to show that member states are not developing biological weapons, but also to show “there are no subnational actors on their territory that can develop these kind of weapons,” Countryman told reporters in Washington December 1.
The nature of the bioweapons threat has shifted from the time the BWC was first signed in 1972. Although it is still possible that a state may try to develop and use a biological weapon against an adversary, “today we are increasingly concerned that the real threat comes from terrorists and nonstate actors,” he said.
At the same time, while the rapid advancements in the knowledge of life sciences have been overwhelmingly positive for human health and prosperity, they have also created “greater opportunities for misuse of this technology,” and increased the need to take steps to minimize those risks, he said.
Looking ahead to the review conference, Countryman said he sees “a far greater landscape of consensus and cooperation at this meeting in Geneva than I see for conflict.”
Cooperation and the sharing of information across international borders are critically important when a highly contagious disease appears, regardless of whether the disease came from nature, an accident or was deliberately spread.
The origin of the disease is “not the first question we should answer,” he said. “Rather, the first thing we need to do is to take immediate action to identify the organism we're dealing with and to begin to fight it, to begin to provide health services to those who are most directly affected.”
For this reason, less-developed countries that may not feel they would be targeted by a biological attack, still have been “enthusiastic participants” in the BWC’s intercessional process, since it allows them to take advantage of the help and cooperation that others in the international community can provide.
Countryman said that in cases where a contagious organism has moved from the natural environment to the human environment, such as the Ebola virus, swine flu or avian flu, “it has been lesser-developed countries that have been disproportionately affected by such diseases.”
The United States has “a strong record” of providing assistance to help other countries build their capacities to detect and respond to an outbreak, as well as breaking down barriers standing in the way of a coordinated international response.
Countryman said that over the past year the International Security and Nonproliferation bureau, which he heads, “has worked with more than 44 countries around the world to build their capacity to respond to these threats.”
But “I believe there is always more that we can do,” he said. “We take seriously the fact that the United States needs to set an example, for itself and for the rest of the world in implementation of this and other arms control and nonproliferation agreements, and we always seek to do so.”
For example, in the interest of encouraging openness and sharing information on potential global biohazards, the United States took the step of making its confidence-building measures (CBMs) public in 2010 and wants to see others do the same.
The CBMs provide data on a country’s research centers and laboratories and its national biological defense research and development programs, along with information on any outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins; current legislation and regulations regarding biological materials; and declarations of any past activities in developing or researching offensive and/or defensive biological programs, as well as vaccine production facilities.
Highlighting the CBMs, Countryman added, “We took the decision that ours should be public and should be subject to inspection, to questioning, by other nations. We hope others have done the same thing. We hope to see that become the norm rather than the exception among states parties.”