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.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

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

State aid: Commission invites interested parties to provide comments on proposed draft Climate, Energy and Environmental State aid Guidelines

Parliament gives green light to EU-Singapore trade and investment protection deals

COVID 19 Vaccine: A new terror or a savior for mankind?

Cyprus President urges collective leadership to address ‘root causes’ of world’s crises

EU Budget 2021 approved: supporting the recovery

Obama turns the G20 summit into warmongering platform

This is how many people are forcibly displaced worldwide

EU food watchdog: more transparency, better risk prevention

COVID-19: What you need to know about the coronavirus pandemic on 9 April

Smart toys: Your child’s best friend or a creepy surveillance tool?

Draghi will not hesitate to zero ECB’s basic interest rate

Biggest London City Banks ready to move core European operations to Frankfurt or Dublin?

Ukraine: EU report notes continued implementation of the reform agenda though challenges remain

EU: Turkey to shelter Syrian refugees and turn other immigrants back in return of €3 billion

UN working to prevent attacks on civilians in eastern DR Congo

CLIMATE CHANGE FOCUS: Cows, coffee and sustainable farming

The world invested almost $2 trillion in energy last year. These 3 charts show where it went

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

EU consumers will soon be able to defend their rights collectively

Could robot leaders do better than our current politicians?

MWC 2016 LIVE: Industry looks to reduce mobile gender gap

Why education and accountability are important for developing countries?

The metamorphosis of the categorical imperative in medical students

How should cities prepare for self-driving cars? Here’s a roadmap

EU fight against tax-evasion and money laundering blocked by Britain

UN chief welcomes Taliban’s temporary truce announcement, encourages all parties to embrace ‘Afghan-owned peace’

Although Greece is struggling to pay salaries and pensions Varoufakis is “optimistic”; the Sting reports live from EBS 2015

Coronavirus Global Response: EIB and Commission pledge additional €4.9 billion

Industry 4.0: Championing Europe’s fourth industrial revolution

A European young student shares his thoughts on Quality Education

France: New labour laws for more competitiveness

EU adopts rebalancing measures in reaction to US steel and aluminium tariffs

Employment and Social Developments in Europe: 2018 review confirms positive trends but highlights challenges, in particular linked to automation and digitalisation

The more we learn about Antarctica, the greater the urgency to act on climate change

Dare to be vulnerable, and three other lessons in leadership

Lorenzo Natali Media Prize 2019: winners of EU’s development journalism award unveiled

A silent killer: the impact of a changing climate on health

Switzerland to introduce strict restrictions on executive pay

Ahead of State of the Union the European Youth Forum highlights lack of action on youth employment

The Challenger Within – Mental Health In Romania During Lockdown

10 ways COVID-19 could reshape offices

Why salaries could finally be on the way up

Problems Faced by Young Doctors and What We Can Do About Them

How big data can help us fight climate change faster

Hydrogen power is here to stay. How do we convince the public that it’s safe?

EU Facility for Refugees in Turkey: €6 billion to support refugees and local communities in need fully mobilised

Promoting Health in the Brazilian Amazon: one nation but many cultures

Here’s what happened when a charity gave $1,000 each to poor households in Kenya

Will Cameron succeed in keeping UK inside the EU and reverse the present economic downturn?

Armenia should take vigorous measures against entrenched corruption

State aid: Commission approves €1.25 billion German measure to recapitalise TUI

How Britain’s backyard bird feeders are shaping evolution

The EU responds to US challenges by fining Apple with €13 billion

Only international actions can settle the world’s ‘enormous and diverse cross-border challenges’, Qatar tells UN Assembly

Questions & Answers on vaccine negotiations

Brain drain 2017: why do medical students need to emigrate to become doctors in 2017?

Investment and Financing under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI): EU and Chinese stakeholders share their views at European Business Summit 2018

World Malaria Day: 7 things to know about the deadly disease

Systems leadership can change the world – but what exactly is it?

Commission launches open access publishing platform for scientific papers

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