Biological Weapons :
Easy to produce and difficult to control
||Fermentation technology; Warfare; Vaccines (human); Biofertilizers;
Biopesticides; Trade; International organization.
||Kelle, A. (1998), "Biological Weapons: Easy to produce
and difficult to control." Biotechnology and Development Monitor,
No. 35, p. 18-21.
The agents for biological weapons (BWs) are easy to produce and
have a tremendous power to harm. At the same time, their production is
difficult to control, because harmful micro-organisms are easily available
and the equipment for manufacturing them is also used for civil purposes.
Control of the spread of BWs could also hamper the export of biotechnology
Potential agents for biological weapons include living micro-organisms
such as bacteria, rickettsiae fungi and viruses that cause infections resulting
in incapacitation or death. Harmful agents also comprise non-living chemicals
manufactured by bacteria, fungi, plants and animals (see
box 1). For a variety of reasons, use of these agents for manufacturing
BWs is more difficult to detect and prevent than military programmes aiming
at the production of chemical or nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
Firstly, the large number of potential BW agents complicates
the arms control task. Secondly, since BW agents are living organisms
which can easily multiply, there is no need to have large production and
storage facilities A small amount of a pathogen with a completely legitimate
civil application can thus grow into a military significant amount within
a short period of time. Thirdly, pathogens can be used in the production
of vaccines to protect the civil population against endemic diseases or
to protect armed forces against BWs of a potential adversary. Therefore,
they cannot be banned from export entirely. Fourthly, also equipment
like fermenters are essentially of a dual-use character. All facilities
necessary in a BW programme are also indispensable for civil purpose procedures
such as the production of pharmaceuticals or proteins for animal feed.
As a result, efforts to control the spread of BWs need more than noticing
the mere presence of pathogens, toxins, or equipment to conclude that a
country is undertaking a military BW programme.
|Different bioweapon programmes
There are numerous naturally occurring microbial agents and toxins that
could be used as BW agents, such as Bacillus anthracis (splenic
fever or anthrax), botulinum toxin, Yersinia pestis (plague),
different types of Brucella bacili (brucellosis), Coxiella burnetii
(Q-fever), Francisella tularensis (tularemia, or rabbit fever),
and three equine encephalitis viruses which are members of the Alphavirus
family (viral encephalitis). Most of these agents have been tested and
in some cases even been developed into weapons.
All of these are naturally occurring agents and toxins, whose utility
as potential BW agent was first investigated systematically during the
First World War, when Germany developed an ambitious biological warfare
programme. Between the First and Second World War, a number of European
countries as well as Canada began basic research programmes to develop
biological weapons. The extent of all these programmes, however, is negligible
in comparison with the large-scale Japanese BW programme that was operated
in occupied Manchuria from 1932 to 1945. The Japanese Unit 731 consisted
of more than 3,000 scientists and technicians. Research was done on a number
of BW agents such as Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis,
and Vibrio cholerae. At least 10,000 prisoners died due to BW experimentation.
Another 10,000 fatalities are reported as the result of a BW attack on
a Chinese city in 1941.
In contrast, an offensive German BW programme did not materialize during
the Second World War. Despite the limited progress of the Germans, the
Allies developed biological weapons as a potential retaliatory measure,
should German BW use occur. In 1942, allied efforts comprised experiments
with spores of Bacillus anthracis on Gruinard Island, which is located
off the Scottish coast. These experiments resulted in the long term contamination
of the island until its decontamination in 1986.
Starting in 1942 the USA maintained an offensive BW programme until
the end of the 1960s, investigating a number of potential agents and leading
to the weaponization of Bacillus anthracis, botulinum toxin,
Francisella tularensis, Brucella suis, Staphylococcal
enterotoxin B, and the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus.
Since World War II, a variety of allegations of BW use were brought
forward, but could not be substantiated. The former Soviet Union, China
and North Korea for example accused the USA of biological warfare during
the Korean War. Similarly, the USA maintained that the Soviet Union and
its allies used trichothecene mycotoxins in Laos, Kampuchea, and
Afghanistan. Again, no evidence supporting the allegations was found. However,
short of BW use, a number of countries were and still are suspected of
having offensive BW programmes. Most prominently, the BW programme of the
former Soviet Union which was inherited by Russia, contained offensive
research and development of biological weapons. First indications of this
programme became public in April 1979, when an unintentional release of
anthrax spores in Ekatarinenburg, Russia, killed more than 60 people in
the vicinity of a military microbiology facility. In 1992, the Russian
government confirmed the incident as well as the Ekaterinenburg facility
being part of a larger offensive BW programme, and announced that the remains
of the Soviet programme would be terminated. Yet, despite a Trilateral
Process established among Russia, the United Kingdom, and the USA,
the status of the BW programme is still unclear.
After the defeat in the Gulf War of 1991 Iraq admitted to having undertaken
an ambitious BW programme. This programme included investigation in potential
agents as well as large scale production and weaponization. Iraq produced
more than 8.5 m3 of anthrax and an even larger amount of botulinum toxin.
In addition, at least 150 bombs and 25 missile warheads were filled with
The list of potential BW possessors varies, depending on the sources
used. However, there is an overlap of suspected countries from these lists
which include China, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria,
and Taiwan. Practically all of these countries can be assumed to focus
their research on the classical, naturally occurring BW agents.
The Biological Weapons Convention
To prevent the spread of technologies and organisms for biological
warfare, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was concluded in
1972. It became a legally binding international treaty in 1975. The BWC
currently has 139 member states. The dual-use problem as inherent in controlling
BWs has been addressed in the BWC by what is frequently called the "general
purpose criterion". Article 1 of the Convention does not focus on specific
biological agents for prohibition. Rather, the intended use is made the
yardstick for judging legitimate and illegitimate purposes. It states that:
"Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances
efforts to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:
(1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, whatever their
origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no
justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes
(2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such
agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict."
It has to be emphasized, however, that this wording leaves open the
more subtle dual-use problem of distinguishing between legitimate defensive
military research and a prohibited offensive military BW programme.
The Soviet Union, for instance, ratified the BWC but had an offensive BW
programme that only became known by accident.
Article 1 implies that the BWC covers all types of pathogens and toxins,
independent of their origin or method of production. This includes genetically
modified micro-organisms as well as so-called "ethnic" bioweapons (see
box 2). Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the BWC
does not contain any clause restricting trade between state parties and
non-signatories, nor does it contain any other guideline for behaviour
The role of export controls
One point of contention that regularly came up during review conferences
were trade restrictions in the form of export controls. According to critics,
most vocally from developing countries like India, Pakistan and Iran, export
control measures are in direct contradiction to Article 10 of the BWC,
which states that "this Convention shall be implemented in a manner
designed to avoid hampering the economic or technological developments
of States Parties to the Convention or international co-operation in the
field of bacteriological (biological) activities". In contrast, proponents
of export controls, most notably the technologically advanced states of
Europe, North America, and Asia, point out that these measures are just
one way of putting into effect Article 3 of the BWC. According to this
article, states parties are under the obligation not to transfer any of
the agents, toxins, weapons, equipments, or means of delivery specified
in Article 1, if the intended end-use is prohibited by the Convention.
A closer look at the debate on export controls makes clear that most
critics fear that export control would mean export denial. The criticism,
however, has not been substantiated with concrete figures on the trade
that has been denied to developing countries. At present, export control
critics are not able or not willing to provide a list of cases in which
exports were denied even though the agents were for unambiguously peaceful
application. On the other hand, the media have reported that in the middle
of the 1980s the UK denied the export of anthrax cultures to Iraq. Iraq
signed the BWC in 1972, but has not ratified the convention. In the light
of Iraq’s ambition for a BW programme, the export denial seems to have
been the right decision.
Furthermore, the industrialized states that are accused of withholding
essential technologies and material from developing countries in general
have an interest in the free export of their biotechnology industries.
Proponents of export controls on dual-use goods and equipment claim
that these measures have to ensure the civil application of exported commodities
and services. This means that export control authorities have to be able
to identify illegal exports and have deterring sanctions available. Although
export controls on dual-use goods and equipment pursued in isolation from
other non-proliferation measures cannot prevent the acquisition of BWs,
they can slow down the procurement process and increase costs. When coordinated
among supplier states, export controls increase the hurdles for a procuring
state. Harmonized export controls make it more difficult for a potential
importer to play one supplier off against another supplier.
Although coordinated export controls would probably not have prevented
Iraq from acquiring the necessary components for its BW programme, such
coordinated controls would have made the acquisition more difficult. However,
the rejection of export requests by the UK was additionally complicated
because Iraq had set up an acquisition network of civil companies and institutions.
Accordingly, Iraq could claim that it was engaged in legitimate civil trade
|Modern biotechnology and bioweapons
So-called "new bioweapons" are based on the recent developments in microbiology
and genetic engineering. Modern biotechnology can be used for the production
of new biological agents or to adapt the characteristics of pathogens already
used in biological weapons. Such traits are, for instance, environmental
stability, increased virulence or antibiotic resistance. This might be
accomplished by the genetic modification of naturally occurring micro-organisms
which in turn might be less susceptible to vaccination or other medical
treatment. So far they seem to have been subject to investigation only
in the past Soviet BW programme.
In recent years, speculations on the development of even more advanced
"ethnic bioweapons", have raised consideration. These weapons would target
genetically distinctive groups of human beings. The mapping of the entire
human genome by the Human Genome Project and research on the genetic
diversity, for instance by the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP)
leads to a better understanding of genetic differences as well as similarities
amongst different human populations. For the future, this knowledge makes
a development of "ethnical bioweapons" conceivable. However, at present
there is no valid proof for their existence.
The Australia Group
One very efficient undertaking to coordinate export controls on dual-use
items is the Australia Group, founded in 1985. Although the members
of the Australia Group are also State Parties to the BWC there is no formal
link between the two. Rather, the Group is an informal gathering for export
control harmonization and information sharing. The Group’s original purpose
was to constrain the trade in technologies and materials of chemical warfare.
It was created in response to the rapid proliferation of chemical weapons,
their use in the Iran-Iraq war, and the limited progress in negotiations
on the Chemical Weapons Convention. An equally important function of the
Group is the exchange of intelligence concerning the procurement activities
of suspected proliferators. Membership of the Group has doubled from the
fifteen founding members to now 30 states, including states from the South.
In 1990, Australia Group members agreed to expand their controls to cover
dual-use BW agents and toxins, as well as equipment necessary for their
production. Since the BWC does not allow for verification of the declared
end-uses of exported items, the Australia Group decided to take additional
precautions. Besides pathogens, also dual-use equipment like fermenters,
centrifuges, aerosol chambers, and filter and freeze-drying machines with
certain technical specifications were subjected to controls.
Dual-use export controls in general and the work of the Australia Group
in particular were not only hotly debated during regular Review Conferences
of the BWC, they also represent an important issue in strengthening the
BWC. A group of governmental experts was established to identify potential
verification measures and assess them from a scientific and technical viewpoint.
When the report of that Group was discussed during a Special Conference
of the states parties to the BWC in September 1994, the question of trade
restrictions took centre stage. It became apparent that a number of states
were hesitant to establish a verification system for the BWC. The USA insisted
that because of the nature of bioweapons and the dual-use problem involved,
the BWC simply was not verifiable. However, the USA was willing to negotiate
measures to enhance compliance with the convention as long as "verification"
was not mentioned. The Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, too, objected
to the idea of a verification regime. Some countries were simply concerned
that it would only bring costs without enhancing their security, others
saw the danger of having to explain BW related activities if inspectors
would pay them a visit. These countries managed to include a negotiation
task for measures to strengthen the implementation of Article 10 of the
BWC, according to which, peaceful cooperation in the biological sciences
must not be compromised by the BWC. The topic of the limitation of technological
developments thereby reappeared on the agenda of the BWC negotiations on
a protocol to strengthen compliance with the convention.
Inspections on biotechnology activities
Although the protocol to the BWC is currently being negotiated in an
Ad Hoc Group, one should not expect that export controls will become an
important element. The BWC is and will remain first and foremost an arms
control agreement. It will affect the biotechnology industry only through
the conduct of visits, inspections, or investigations. However, there is
practically no BWC state party in the Ad Hoc Group advocating an extensive
verification regime with a large number of inspections. Firstly,
it seems too costly to cover all dual-use facilities world-wide with such
a verification system. Secondly, some countries, for instance the
USA and Japan, are afraid of industrial espionage and therefore want to
restrict the numbers of inspected facilities. The focus of these measures
would not be like the current inspection regime in Iraq which is based
on resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council (SC).
It allows inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM)
to have unrestricted access to all facilities at any time. The purpose
of the UNSCOM inspections is to verify that Iraq destroys all its weapons
of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, and does not acquire these
weapons anew. In contrast, the purpose of visits, inspections or investigations
as suggested by the Ad Hoc Group will be to confirm that States Parties
to the BWC are behaving in conformity with their obligations under the
Convention. Only if these non-confrontational measures hint at a possible
violation of the BWC, more intrusive inspections can be expected to take
Surveys on the triggers for declarations and, following from that,
investigations and visits have come up with 30 to 50 facilities that would
have to be declared in countries like Canada, the Netherlands, Italy and
the Scandinavian countries. Declarable are, for instance, facilities that
work with pathogens or toxins suitable for BWs, microbiological production
facilities for vaccines or antibiotics or the production of biopesticides.
Extrapolating from these figures, developing countries are expected to
declare even fewer facilities and to host correspondingly fewer inspections.
However, these verification measures would not detect a treaty violation
with guaranteed certainty. Instead, this limited approach should increase
confidence in the compliant behaviour of BWC member states. Although these
measures would interfere with the activities of biotechnological facilities,
the disruption would be limited.
Research Associate, Non-Proliferation Project, Peace Research Institute
Frankfurt, Leimenrode 29, D-60322 Frankfurt/Main, Germany. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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