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U.S. Looks Toward Effective Biological Weapons Convention
October 7, 2011

Remarks by

Thomas Countryman
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation

Charting the Future of Biosecurity: Ten Years After the Anthrax Attacks
Center for Biosecurity – University of Pittsburgh Medical Center

Pittsburgh, PA
October 4, 2011

Thank you, Anita, and to all the distinguished speakers and guests. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be here all day. I first want to bring greetings from my boss, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security Ellen Tauscher. She is on her way to Romania and asked me to fill in. I am very excited after only a week on the job that I to get to speak to a group that has made such important contributions to national goals of security and international goals of nonproliferation. As you have heard all day I’m sure, it is not only your expertise, your engagement, your advice that contributes to national security, it’s also your work, as we just heard from Senator Talent, to raise the public consciousness that will make a difference as we confront these threats.

My job today is to speak a little about the international aspect, using the tool of the Biological Weapons Convention and what we can expect in the next five years.

Today’s anniversary is somber as we look back ten years at the anthrax attacks – it is the right moment to look ahead, as we have been doing, to figure out what we need to do to be prepared to move ahead with the essential goals of biosecurity.

That is what I’ll do with regard to the BWC – to look ahead – but first, if you’ll bear with me, look back for a few minutes.

The year 2001 was not only the year of the anthrax attacks. A few months before, in the summer of 2001, the U.S. officially withdrew its support for negotiations on a legally binding verification protocol for the Biological Weapons Convention. At that time, the ideas that we put forth seemed, to some of our closest allies, to be inopportune. Nevertheless, the anthrax events themselves demonstrated the importance of what we were proposing. Those attacks demonstrated the ineffectiveness of the verification protocol in addressing what we might call “classical” biological weapons threats – states programs and even more the threat posed by non-state actors. By 2002, some of the states that we cooperated with, that were skeptical about our approach were conscious that the anthrax attacks here in Washington had changed the debate. The measures that we had proposed suddenly seemed relevant and important even to those who had been the strongest advocates of a verification protocol focused on state activity. Getting countries to put in place domestic laws to deal with perpetrators of such acts, making labs safer and pathogens secure and training life scientists on the potential danger of the misuse of their work, all of these were very relevant to countering the threats that were revealed to the world in October 2001.

Our proposals foresaw – and the anthrax demonstrated – that when it came to the proliferation of biological weapons and the risk of an attack, the world community faced a greater threat, from a wider range of sources, based on a new calculus. They understood that the BW threat from non-state actors needed to be addressed, and focusing on what countries were doing domestically to counter this real-world threat from sub-state actors was both critical to our collective security and to achieving the goals of the Biological Weapons Convention.

This approach as we rolled it out in 2003-2005 intersessional period, was at first very Western-oriented. The procedures that we proposed and highlighted were very much centered on the methodologies of the technologically advanced industrialized world and put forth without gaining much buy-in from lesser developed nations. But the BWC quickly showed that it had this very important role of showcasing best practices for countering a wide range of biological threats. We demonstrated then, and we remain convinced today, that our approach must include measures to help with human, animal and plant diseases and their consequences. As we progressed, those countries that were actively engaged in the process brought their best scientists and practitioners to give briefings and interact with the diplomats and their counterparts from other countries. Fairly rapidly, a much wider array of states and other nongovernmental and intergovernmental actors recognized the relevance of this approach not just to their national security but to their public health. So, over those years, attendance by States Parties doubled in the first year from that of the Protocol negotiations and continues to increase year by year.

Between 2007 and 2010, the Biological Weapons Convention Work Program resumed its focus on biosafety and pathogen security, national implementation and codes of conduct for scientists, and also focused on disease surveillance capacity building and assistance in the event of a suspicious outbreak or alleged use of BW. This focus on disease surveillance, and the demonstration that SARS, H1N1 and H5N1 knew no boundaries – that concerted national and international coordination was needed – brought home the value of the work ongoing in Geneva. The meetings were no longer just for diplomats; we had participants from all parts of the world and had the interaction of the disarmament, scientific, law enforcement, academic and private sector communities. These meetings stimulated significant activity at the national level and increased the knowledge base around the world in best practices in biosafety and biosecurity, disease surveillance, in science education. This new approach started with limited and modest goals but it was clearly a success.

That is the last ten years. Of course, today, the threat has not gone away. We fully recognize that a major biological attack on one of the world’s major cities could cause as much death and economic and psychological damage as a nuclear attack. And while the United States is still concerned about state-sponsored biological warfare and proliferation, we are equally, if not more, concerned about an act of bioterrorism due to the rapid pace of advances in the life sciences.

And so today, it is time for still more ambitious thinking.

As we go to the Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference in December in Geneva, our steps should line up with the aims of President Obama’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats which was announced at the BWC two years ago. This strategy has a clear, overarching goal … to protect against the misuse of science to develop or use biological agents to cause harm.

Let me outline – or I’m sure for this group, remind you of – the broadest goals of the national strategy:

First, that we will work with the international community to promote the peaceful and beneficial use of life sciences, in accordance with the Biological Weapons Convention’s Article Ten, to combat infectious diseases regardless of their cause.

Second, we will work to promote global health security by increasing the availability of and access to knowledge and products of the life sciences to help reduce the impact from outbreaks of infectious disease, whether of natural, accidental, or deliberate origin.

Third, we will work toward establishing and reinforcing norms against the misuse of the life sciences. We seek to ensure a culture of responsibility, awareness, and vigilance among all who use and benefit from the life sciences.

And fourth, we will implement a coordinated approach to influence, identify, inhibit, and interdict those who seek to misuse scientific progress to harm innocent people.

These are the goals of the National Strategy that inform our approach and they have a few specific implications for our work between now and the Review Conference in December and beyond.

We will continue to seek timely and accurate information on the full spectrum of threats and challenges so that we can take appropriate actions to manage the evolving risk.

We will make clear, as we have in the National Strategy that the revolutionary advances that are taking place in the life sciences are overwhelmingly positive. We need to embrace and support those developments while taking balanced, appropriate, steps to minimize the risks posed by potential misuse.

To remain effective, the Biological Weapons Convention must continue to adopt to the wider range of biological threats we will face in this century. We need to continue to translate these strategic goals, which are shared overwhelmingly by the other States Parties to the BWC, to enhance the BWC still further.

We want to enhance the effectiveness of this Convention as the norm against biological weapons, through our actions and not only through our words. We have consulted widely, and we have listened widely, on how we can all benefit from a range of tools that increase mutual confidence; from specific confidence-building measures, to more frequent consultations, to proactive, national steps that demonstrate compliance by states.

We will seek endorsement of expanded efforts to prevent bioterrorism by strengthening national legislation and oversight in the States Party, fostering greater understanding of the scope of national implementation measures that the Convention requires and enlisting the support and cooperation of the international scientific and commercial sectors in these efforts.

We know that the best time for international assistance should come before, and not after, a biological weapons attack. We will continue to focus on providing targeted and sustainable international assistance, joined by other donors in the international community, aimed at building the national capacities in all countries to detect and respond to a disease outbreak, regardless of the cause, and identifying and addressing barriers to effective international response. We will take a multi-sectoral approach as and seek assistance from other donors. And I think you see also, and have seen today, this is very much a multi-sectoral approach in terms of the number of U.S. agencies that are actively working with partners overseas, from Health and Human Services, the U.S. Agency for International Development, State, Agriculture, and the Department of Defense. The FBI also positively influenced many at the BWC when they showed their so-called “crim-epi” training in which they train law enforcement and health officials to work together to preserve evidence during a disease incident.

The intersessional process in between each Review Conference has been effective – and where the real work of the BWC has been done – more than in the Review Conference that will be in the spotlight in December. The intersessional process has brought together national security, public health, law enforcement, scientific and academic communities, private industry, and intergovernmental organizations that did not previously interact with the BWC, such as the World Health Organization, Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Organization for Animal Health. The Biological Weapons Convention has become, and should be, fully utilized as a forum to share information with all states of the bilateral and regional activities that relate to the BWC, to consult with each other on new avenues of bilateral and multilateral engagement, and to seek the support of the international community for national protection efforts. These activities, those States Party now realize will enhance their real-world capability and real-world security.

We need to build on past meetings so that the BWC continues to be the premier forum for this multi-sector information exchange, coordination, and cooperation. The intersessional process has proved more important and productive than I think was realized at the earlier Review Conferences. Nearly all the states that are party to the BWC are now active participants in this important work as well as the various international organizations that I have mentioned.

We would like the Review Conference in December to reinvigorate, or to give added vigor, to this intersessional process, to continue this expert-level interaction and to look to more concrete results in such discussions. For example, we think that the convening authority of the BWC could bring in the emergency management community in greater efforts to determine the capabilities and resources needed in the event of an outbreak. We could do a better job sharing lessons learned regarding regulations that are needed to assist efforts at response and recovery efforts. We should have in-depth discussions about the latest developments in science and technology that could affect the BWC and we should be very open within the U.S., and the other leading BWC members, about sharing how we comply with our BWC obligations.

Doing more in this forum will cost a little more for the international community – that is the bad news. If we want international experts to produce specific recommendations and results, we will need more time to meet and work than we have in the past. We’re making better use of electronic platforms, but at the end of the day, if we want the BWC to contribute more to our security, we will have to contribute a little more to it. And has that has been pointed out, that’s never easy, and is especially difficult today given what State and AID and others are facing with budget cuts. But the good news is that we’re talking about a remarkably cheap investment. The BWC is supported by a staff of only three people. Right now the experts meet for only five days a year. Fairly small increases here can make a huge difference in the results we can deliver through this Convention.

Let me mention one more goal for this Review Conference for it is one of our oldest goals for the BWC and still valid today. We want to establish universal adherence. Universal membership will strengthen the global norm against the use of disease as a weapon and reinforce the international community’s determination that such use would be, as the preamble to the BWC states, “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” There is reason to hope for additional membership. The process I have just described is becoming clear to others – that this process is not only about national security but also about their self-protection against a range of threats not just from other states but also from non-state actors, and all who have participated as States Party have gained in their capacity to respond to such threats. We think this gives added incentive to get those few states that have not yet become members of the BWC to join up and achieve this goal of universal adherence.

Just to sum up, the BWC and the parties to it have kept current with countering modern day threats. This is the right moment as we go to this Review Conference in December to reinforce our resolve to take additional practical steps to move forward jointly toward our greater mutual security.

We are bringing specific ideas to the Review Conference, we are consulting widely and we are listening to our partners in other countries and to our own indispensible partners – the scientific and business communities in the United States as we move forward. Thank you for your time and the opportunity to share our thoughts on how to use the Biological Weapons Convention to help with the critical challenges which we face.