Terrorists potentially target millions in makeshift biological weapons ‘laboratories’, UN forum hears

The United Nations Office at Geneva, where multilateral discussions on biological weapons have been taking place.

UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré The United Nations Office at Geneva, where multilateral discussions on biological weapons have been taking place.

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.
Rapid advances in gene editing and so-called “DIY biological laboratories”which could be used by extremists, threaten to derail efforts to prevent biological weapons from being used against civilians, the world’s only international forum on the issue has heard.

At meetings taking place at the United Nations in Geneva which ended on Thursday, representatives from more than 100 Member States which have signed up to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) – together with civilian experts and academics – also discussed how they could ensure that science is used to positive ends, in line with the disarmament blueprint set out by UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

Although the potential impact of a biological weapons attack could be huge, the likelihood is not currently believed to be high. The last attack dates back to 2001, when letters containing toxic anthrax spores, killed five people in the US, just days after Al Qaeda terrorists perpetrated the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.

Nonetheless, the rise of extremist groups and the potential risk of research programmes being misused, has focused attention on the work of the BWC.

“There’s interest from terror groups and we’re also seeing the erosion of norms on chemical weapons,” said Daniel Feakes, head of the BWC Implementation Support Unit at the UN in Geneva.

“That could spread to biological weapons as well,” he said, adding that “at the worst, you could be talking of epidemics on the scale of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or even a global pandemic that could result in millions of deaths.”

In a bid to stay on top of the latest biological developments and threats, the BWC’s 181 Member States hold a series of meetings with experts every year, traditionally in the summer. The reports that are discussed during these sessions are then formerly appraised in December.

At the eight-day session just ended, science and technology issues were debated for two days – a measure of their importance.

Among the developments discussed was the groundbreaking gene-editing technique CRISPR. It can be applied – in theory – to any organism. Outside the Geneva body, CRISPR’s use has raised ethical questions, Mr. Feakes said, but among Member States, security ramifications dominated discussions.

“Potentially, it could be used to develop more effective biological weapons,” he said, noting that the meetings addressed the growing trend of “DIY biological labs”. However, the meetings also focused on the promotion of “responsible science” so that “scientists are part of the solution, not the problem”.

In addition to concerns that the Biological Weapons Convention lacks full international backing, the body has also faced criticism that its Members are not obliged to allow external checks on any illegal stockpiles they might have.

The issue highlights the fact that the BWC lacks a strong institution, its handful of administrators dwarfed by larger sister organizations including the OPCW – the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The OPCW’s 500-strong staff – based in the Hague – have weapons inspectors training facilities, Feakes notes, explaining that the BWC’s focus is therefore much more “about what States do at a national level”.

Concern for the future

Looking ahead, and aside from the rapid pace of scientific change, the biggest challenge is keeping the Biological Weapons Convention relevant – which appears to still be the case today.

“There are no States that say they need biological weapons,” Mr. Feakes says. “That norm needs to be maintained and properly managed. You can’t ban CRISPR or gene editing, because they can do so much good, like finding cures for diseases or combating climate change. But we still need to manage these techniques and technologies to ensure they are used responsibly.” Gene editing, in simple terms, involves the copying of exact strands of DNA, similar to cutting and pasting text on a computer.

The latest BWC session in the Swiss city also involved key intergovernmental organizations, scientific and professional associations, academic institutions, think tanks and other non-governmental entities.

Formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, the BWC was the first multilateral disarmament treaty to ban an entire category of weapons.

It opened for signature in 1972 and entered into force in 1975. It currently has 181 States Parties, and six States that have signed but not yet ratified it.

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

Advertising

the European Sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Will Qualcomm avoid Broadcom’s hostile takeover post the 1 bn euro EU antitrust fine?

Draghi joined Macron in telling Germany how Eurozone must be reformed

Plastic Oceans: MEPs back EU ban on polluting throwaway plastics by 2021

The ‘abuse of food relief in Yemen’ must end now

Halt death sentences on children, UN rights expert urge Saudi authorities

Global immunization is having its annual check-up. What can we learn?

As the year closes out, UN political chief talks the art of diplomacy – and crises to watch in 2019.

Ukraine pays the price for lying between Russia and the EU

The EU Commission by serving the banks offers poor support to European mainstream political parties

France sneaks into the Geneva US-Iran talks to claim its business share in Tehran

How to keep our cities cool as temperatures rise

Parliament adopts its position on digital copyright rules

Antitrust: Commission fines Google €4.34 billion for illegal practices regarding Android mobile devices to strengthen dominance of Google’s search engine

The Irish Presidency bullies the Parliament over EU budget

Mental health problems costing Europe heavily

Anti-vaccers: does the empty can rattle the most?

Clean energy will do to gas what gas has done to coal

WHO and IFMSA as transcendent pillars for world improvement

The Oslo model: how to prepare your city for the electric-vehicle surge

Is Eurozone preparing to abandon austerity and stagnation?

Lessons from the Global Entrepreneurship Index

EU Parliament: It takes real banks to fight unemployment and recession

EU-India summit: Will the EU manage to sign a free trade agreement with India before Britain?

UK: Crawley group wins European Citizens’ Prize

Multilateralism: The only path to address the world’s troubles, signals Guterres

The EU Parliament sidesteps the real issues about banks, while the US target the Eurozone lenders

Easing funding woes for UN agency assisting Palestine refugees a ‘wise investment for today and the future’

In Tokyo, UN chief expresses full support for US-Japan dialogue with North Korea

A Sting Exclusive, the European Commissioner for Energy Günther Oettinger writes for the Sting on “EU Industry: a major energizer”

The EU Commission predicts a decimated growth in the next years

There’s a global learning crisis and it’s leaving millions without basic skills

European Union disenchanted with Turkey

Trump aims trade offensive solely to China, renews truce with EU

Education expenditure in the EU not hurt much by crisis

UN chemical weapons watchdog adds new powers to assign blame, following attacks

7 key challenges for the future of ASEAN – and how to solve them

European Youth Vlog

EU-Japan trade agreement enters into force

We don’t need to ban plastic. We just need to start using it properly

Change is happening – and young people are leading the way forward

Neelie Kroes at the European Young Innovators Forum: Unconvention 2014

EU-US trade talks go ahead despite Prism and civil rights breach

EU Ambassadors in the EP: a multilateral approach to global challenges needed

Commission: Raising the social issues that can make or break the monetary union

Want a fairer society? This economist says he has the answer

EU decides “in absentia” of civil society

Oh, well, you are wrong, Google responds to the European Commission

Brexit talks: 2nd round fails to bring the EU and the UK closer on key issues

An ECB banker wants to change the European social model

Large parts of the world are growing more fragile. Here are 5 steps to reverse course

ECB steadily continues monetary easing policy as EU economy gains momentum

Can the next financial crisis be avoided?

Russia to cut gas supplies again: can the EU get back to growth without a solid energy market?

The new European Union of banks is ready

Ceasefire holds in Tripoli, but core problems remain, says UN Libya mission chief

Managers’ pay under fire

French election: Will France vote for a reformed or no EU?

Respect for fundamental rights and freedoms key for peaceful polls in DRC – UN mission chief

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s