Biological Weapons Pact Offers Cooperation Against Pandemics

By Stephen Kaufman
IIP Staff Writer
December 10, 2010

Washington – The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC), which took effect in 1975, originally was designed to ban the development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons by nation states. To meet the threats of the 21st century, however, signatories are also using the convention to try to prevent bioterrorism and to expand information sharing and communication that can be used to combat any pandemic, spread deliberately or otherwise.

Discussions at the annual meeting of the parties to the BWC, held December 6-10 in Geneva, reflected awareness that prevention and response to a disease caused deliberately by a biological weapon, or accidentally by the mishandling of biological material, or naturally in cases such as cholera or bird flu, require the same mechanisms and coordination among governments, health professionals and scientists.

Laura Kennedy, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament and U.S. special representative for Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention issues, led the American delegation to the meeting and said enhanced cooperation among governments, health professionals and other experts will benefit everyone, including countries that do not have the capacity to manufacture bioweapons or do not believe they will be targeted. Every country is vulnerable to an epidemic outbreak, thus the BWC aims to reach out to all countries around the world, she said.

Speaking to America.gov from Geneva December 10, Kennedy said the Obama administration is “extremely pleased to see growing cooperation between health and security communities,” which are working together to enhance local, national and international capacities to deal with disease outbreaks.

The United States wants to see an enhanced focus on bioterrorism as well as retention of the convention’s traditional focus on state entities, she said. President Obama recognizes that “a bio-outbreak could be just as devastating as a nuclear incident, whether unleashed by a state or a terrorist group.”

“When you build capacity, it is a powerful deterrence tool,” Kennedy said.

But in the 21st century, deliberate use of biological weapons is not the only concern, Kennedy said. “There’s a whole spectrum of outbreaks of a disease that could be caused by deliberate, accidental or natural disease outbreaks. And as we strengthen the mechanisms to deal with these challenges, we can have benefits across the board.”

Haiti is currently combating the outbreak of cholera. H5N1, also known as bird flu, continues to infect and kill people around the world.

Kennedy said the parties to the BWC want the arms control and nonproliferation agreement to be used to bring together the scientific and health communities, law enforcement professionals and governments in assisting states to develop an integrated approach to any kind of prevention and treatment program for pandemic diseases.

“It’s linking up international assistance, and it’s providing the expertise that could conduct the investigations to determine the outbreak. So it’s a whole host of tools at our disposal,” Kennedy said.

Along with highlighting the overlap between deliberate and nondeliberate pandemics, the meeting in Geneva discussed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2005 International Health Regulations, which require countries to cooperate in the prevention and treatment of diseases.

The WHO and BWC, both located in Geneva, have different mandates, but their roles complement one another, Kennedy said.

The BWC also established a network of national points of contact in the event of a disease outbreak. Kennedy said there is still a need to help countries better react to pandemic situations by helping them develop their capacities, laws and practices.

“It’s plugging gaps. It’s linking up and sharing information, and getting those networks in place” at the local, national and international levels, she said. “This is achieved through multilateral diplomacy, providing technical assistance to countries and conducting workshops with the help of partner states.”

She said the December 6-10 meetings “put us on a very good trajectory”

for the Seventh BWC Review Conference, scheduled for Geneva, December 5-22, 2011. The BWC also plans to hold a preparatory conference in April 2011, as well as a series of regional workshops, including in Kenya, Nigeria and Jordan, and additional experts meetings and seminars around the world, she said.

The Obama administration is pleased by the level of global interest and hopes soon to see “every single state signed up and fully active in the convention.”

“That’s certainly our overarching goal, and I think we’re making progress,” Kennedy said. “This is an arms control regime … and the implementation has great benefits for every country around the world.”

A notice on the Geneva BWC meeting is available on the State Department website.

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)
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