U.S. Remarks to the Conference on Disarmament Subsidiary Body 5 Session on New Types of WMD and New Systems of Such Weapons
Acting Deputy Permanent Representative Dan Callahan
March 29, 2022
I would like to start by adding our voice to earlier statements condemning in the strongest possible terms Russia’s unprovoked aggression against Ukraine and Belarus’ support for such aggression.
The subject matter for today’s informal session of Subsidiary Body 5 covers a very wide range of issues. My remarks today relate to the questions raised regarding “causes for developing weapons of mass destruction,” (or WMD) and “the role of science and technology in the emergence of WMD.” Specifically, I plan to talk about the evolving biological weapons threat, as well as past U.S. efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons (or BW) in the former Soviet Union and its relationship to current day activities to support dozens of countries around the world to reduce biological threats and utilize biotechnology for peaceful purposes.
The concept of “new WMD,” as is covered in today’s session, is an interesting one, and we must remain vigilant against the misuse of new technologies that could facilitate WMD development. The United States remains concerned about the threat of biological weapons from state or non-state actors, as relevant biological agents, materials, knowledge, and expertise have become more widely available and less costly. Rapid advances in science and technology have expanded the ability to manipulate biological agents and toxins, potentially enabling production and delivery or allowing for more facile engineering of agents with enhanced characteristics. For instance, some toxins that exist in nature have traditionally been considered to have a low likelihood of weaponization because of a limited ability to isolate the toxin from its host microbe. Today, several of those toxins can be produced in higher quantities, using genetic engineering or chemical synthesis techniques, thus making them more accessible as a potential weapon.
Moreover, increased access to resources and advances in biotechnology has led to the diffusion of associated technologies, knowledge, and skills throughout the world. While these advances in science and technology support peaceful purposes and applications that benefit all societies, there is also the potential risk that these same advances could lead to pathogens with enhanced pathogenicity and lethality, the ability to evade countermeasures, and decreased scientific and financial barriers for those with ill intent to develop or use as biological weapons.
The United States government, as well as the U.S. nongovernmental community is actively seeking to reduce biological risk too. The U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, for example, developed a framework to assess and better understand the risk of misuse of advances in synthetic biology technology. Applying this framework, several concerns were ranked and include, inter alia, increased concerns about making existing bacteria or viruses more dangerous, recreating de novo synthesis of extant and extinct viruses, making nefarious biochemicals via in situ synthesis, or manufacturing nefarious biochemicals by exploiting natural metabolic pathways. Scientific advancements in this field and others can lower technical barriers to modifying pathogens to enhance pathogenicity or lethality or to render detection capabilities or countermeasures less effective. Critically, though, this type of risk assessment, when performed regularly as science and technologies advance, allows governments and scientific communities to enhance biosafety and biosecurity to properly manage risk while still developing the science, technology, and innovation for public good.
It is clear that improvements in science and technology have expanded the biological threat landscape and the range of infectious organisms and biological agents that can be weaponized. However, it is important to remember that countries and non-state actors remain able to obtain WMD, perhaps more easily, by acquiring existing technology, materials, and knowhow, much of which has existed for decades. While discussion on BW nonproliferation often centers on preventing the misuse and redirection of biotechnology and expertise from peaceful to nefarious purposes, a primary proliferation threat comes from existing and former BW programs. This is the precise scenario that the United States and the international community faced at the time of the collapse of the former Soviet Union.
By the time of its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union, despite being a party to the Biological Weapons Convention, had created the largest BW program in history, consisting of dozens of research, development, and production facilities, with tens of thousands of employees, spread across many of its successor states. This weapons complex developed a broad range of biological pathogens for use against plants, animals, and humans, including the weaponization of anthrax, plague, and smallpox. Therefore, when the Soviet Union disbanded, the weapons, equipment, facilities, raw materials, and people involved in this illegal program represented one of the greatest WMD proliferation risks ever confronted.
In response to this dangerous situation, the U.S. Congress authorized the creation of what is now known as the Biological Threat Reduction Program, or BTRP, to eliminate and demilitarize biological weapons infrastructure inherited by Russia and prevent proliferation to other countries or terrorist groups. Because of the military nature of the Soviet program, this task fell to the U.S. Department of Defense. A key element of this effort was the Cooperative Biological Research Program, which sought to engage Russian scientists who participated in the former Soviet BW program through direct U.S.-Russia cooperation on research that addressed urgent public health needs and development of medical countermeasures for especially dangerous pathogens.
The United States initiated similar projects with other former Soviet Union countries, including Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. The objectives of these partnerships were to:
- Consolidate, reduce, and secure collections of especially dangerous pathogens;
- Enhance biosecurity and biosafety at vulnerable sites;
- Strengthen the capacity for public health and veterinary health systems to detect, diagnose, and report infectious disease outbreaks rapidly and accurately;
- And, where relevant, eliminate any residual biological weapons infrastructure.
Fundamentally, the specific activities jointly conducted between the United States and partnering countries were designed to adapt former BW applicable infrastructure and expertise to peaceful uses that benefit both the country and global health security.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that advances in biotechnology could support new WMD capabilities at lower cost, leading to an expanded footprint of potentially dual use life sciences research around the world and also complicating efforts to ensure that biological weapons are never used. Additionally, many of the traditional “signatures” that once characterized an offensive biological warfare program are no longer valid. Biological warfare programs are now more likely to be much smaller in scale compared to past efforts that involved large scale weapons production programs, sizeable quantities of agent, and numerous facilities. Finally, as we consider the impact of new science and technology on WMD, and work as an international community to ensure that emerging life sciences and biotechnology tools are used for peaceful purposes, we must not lose sight of the existing and former programs that continue to threaten our collective security – and commit to strengthening norms against the development and use of biological weapons.
In response to the earlier statement by the Russian Federation regarding pursuit of a CBW terrorism convention, the United States does not believe a new international convention is necessary and does not agree with the Russian argument that there are serious gaps in the international framework to address CBW terrorism. Instead, we believe it is critical that we do not delay or derail practical efforts to strengthen implementation of the existing framework and using established mechanisms. We should continue to work on these important issues in other appropriate contexts, such as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the Terrorist Bombing Convention, and Security Council resolution 1540. It is also important to support the relevant international organizations, such as the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons that have a clear mandate to address the CBW threats posed by non-State actors (NSAs). We welcome working together in existing fora to strengthen efforts to prevent State and non-State actors from developing, acquiring, and/or using chemical and biological weapons. The United States strongly believes all countries that are serious about addressing the CBW threat should demonstrate that commitment by supporting international efforts to address the heinous use of chemical weapons by holding accountable State and non-State actors involved in CBW use.