December 7, 2022 - 10:03am

Given ongoing uncertainty about Covid’s origins and the emergence of Russian disinformation about Ukrainian biolabs, one would think that the ninth-ever review conference (RevCon) of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention might generate a smidgen of media interest.

Taking place all of last week in Geneva, Switzerland under the auspices of the UN, not one mainstream outlet has covered the conference in any detail. This is strange, since this year’s RevCon follows a special consultative committee of the BWC that was called by Russia in September. Such a provision has only been invoked once before in the history of the convention — when Cuba accused the US of a biological attack in 1997.

What’s more, there has also been a noteworthy shift on the issue of enforcement and verification. As it stands, the BWC constitutes a legally binding international agreement between 184 signatories to ban the use, development and stockpiling of biological weapons. It remains one of the most important tools in the global effort to prevent the proliferation of such weapons.

But it is not a perfect mechanism. 

Unlike its chemical and nuclear cousins, the treaty has never been accompanied by a verification regime. This has been a source of concern for some parties because it has made it difficult to determine whether a state is engaging in prohibited activities.

To date, successive efforts to introduce a verification mechanism have mostly been blocked by the United States due to private sector sensitivities linked to the last time parties engaged in mutual inspections.

In 1992 the trilateral process, as it was known, successfully unearthed a major contravention of the BWC by Russia in the form of its secret Biopreparat biological weapons programme.

But, to convince Moscow to allow American and British inspectors into Russian facilities, then-president Bill Clinton was forced to accept similar reciprocal conditions on the US side. This saw the Russians demanding to visit two private Pfizer facilities. 

David Kelly, one of the biological weapons experts who led the Western delegation to Russia, noted of the visit that:

The intensely negative reaction of the Pfizer Corporation and subsequently the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America to the Russian visits to American commercial sites was a contributory factor in the American rejection of the draft verification protocol for the BWC in July 2001.
- David Kelly

As Greg Koblentz, a bioweapons expert from George Mason University, told me, progress in recent years has been further hindered by documented cases of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea attempting to hack into companies and university labs working on Covid treatments to spread disinformation about these US-developed medical countermeasures. 

Today, the states calling most loudly for a verification mechanism (Russia and Iran) are also the ones undermining verification missions in the BWC’s chemical counterpart.

But with Russia now exploiting the stasis around verification to bolster its own propaganda, it seems significant that US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Bonnie Jenkins, noted at last week’s RevCon meeting that her country is ready to explore what measures, “including possible verification measures”, might be effective in today’s context.

Despite the thawing attitude, it’s clear the road to a formal mechanism remains a long one. A key challenge is that advances in biotechnology have made it far too easy to hide offensive research and production inside seemingly civilian or defensive programmes due to the speed with which processes can be developed. 

That is why we need more in-depth discussion about what is possible given scientific and technical developments and political constraints, which is why the US willingness to have expert-level discussion on issues such as transparency and compliance reassurance would be so useful.
- Greg Koblentz

But that at a minimum sounds like something worth reporting on.

Izabella Kaminska is the former editor of FT Alphaville and founder of The Blind Spot.