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Bioweapons Convention Useful in Preventing Pandemic Disease
May 2, 2011

May 2, 2011

Washington – The Obama administration is working to make the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) universal by encouraging countries that have not joined the treaty to appreciate its benefits, not only in preventing acquisition and use of biological weapons, but also in promoting international cooperation to prevent and mitigate disease, spread deliberately or otherwise.

Ambassador Laura Kennedy, U.S. permanent representative to the Conference on Disarmament and U.S. special representative for Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention issues, said April 29 that the treaty has special significance to countries that are concerned with the threat from pandemic diseases.

The United States is trying to “illustrate the benefits on a broad basis beyond the confines of traditional arms control” and why it’s good for all countries to join the BWC and be active participants, she said. “It has real health and science benefits.”

Kennedy participated in the April 13-14 Preparatory Committee meetings for the Seventh Review Conference of the BWC, which will be held in Geneva in December.

She said that the meetings had gone very well, with a “commitment to make progress and not get distracted … in areas where we don’t agree.”

She also described the gathering as pragmatic and “results-oriented.”

“Our hope is that the Preparatory Committee meeting is a harbinger of a successful year ahead,” she said.

She said she was especially encouraged that the Preparatory Committee meeting had taken place on a “community basis,” with “cross-fertilization of ideas” rather than being subject to normal global rivalries, such as those between nonaligned and Western countries or between northern and southern countries.

In the run-up to the December Review Conference, Kennedy said the 163 states that are party to the BWC will be engaging in “intellectual brainstorming” and sharing specific proposals and papers for consideration at the conference.

There will also be regional conferences hosted by the Philippines, Germany and Kenya and Brazil in the coming months to identify and discuss important issues likely to arise at the review conference.

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.

“You can submit them in confidential form. There is a protected site on the BWC where this information is collected, but we took the step of making it all public,” Kennedy said.

To encourage disclosure and compliance with the CBMs, Kennedy said, there are ways to make it easier for states to share information, such as by allowing them to update their information online, or to provide assistance programs for those who never before submitted their disclosures.

“It’s conceivable that at the [December] conference we could agree on certain changes to the confidence-building measures, or we might just establish a process to review them and come up with recommendations in the subsequent period. It could be both,” she said.

Kennedy acknowledged that differences remain between the United States and other countries over the issue of agreeing on a legally binding verification regime.

Kennedy said the Obama administration conducted a “thorough top-to-bottom review” of U.S. BWC policy and determined that, unlike their chemical or nuclear counterparts, verification measures in the biological arena would be meaningless and impossible to develop.

“You don’t need elaborate infrastructure to develop a biological agent,”

as you would with a nuclear device, she said. “A high school laboratory is all you need. Things occur in nature. It can be engineered. It can be grown, and the stuff that you need for vaccines for everyday use can be the very same stuff that can produce deadly agents.”

A normal verification regime would require inspections, but given the many possible places to develop a lethal agent, “what would you inspect?” Kennedy asked.

“We hope we have set this aside and instead are working on practical measures” such as CBMs, which encourage openness and transparency, leading to confidence and compliance “without resurrecting the old divisive debate on whether it might be possible to negotiate a verification regime,” she said.

Kennedy said she is pleased with the increased amount of international cooperation on the BWC and singled out recent efforts by Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Philippines, China, Kenya, Nigeria, Mexico, and the European Union in strengthening the BWC by developing their capacities to deal with biological risks and sharing best practices to enhance international norms.

There are “lots of really good, solid partners out there to work with in the year ahead,” Kennedy said. “The BWC is really uniquely configured to showcase the benefits of working internationally on cross-cutting health security issues and on a cross-regional basis.”

Click here for The U.S. Confidence Building Measure Return for 2009 (PDF, 1.92 MB)