Pandora Report 12.2.2016

Welcome to December! We hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving holiday. If you’re still craving poultry and happen to be in Sweden, you may want to keep in mind that the first H5N8 case was just detected. Want an overview on genome editing? Check out the Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology’s note on it here.

Army Reprimands General Over Anthrax Debacle
Biosafety failures have been an increasing concern over the last few years. Within the last few years, the Pentagon was involved in mistakenly shipping live anthrax to nine U.S. laboratories and an airbase in South Korea after failing to inactive the bacteria. The Army has now reprimanded Brig. Gen. William King, the highest-ranking officer implicated in the events. “A reprimand prevents an officer from receiving another assignment, effectively ending his career, according to a Defense official familiar with King’s case but not authorized to speak publicly about it. ‘Brig. Gen. King was reprimanded for failing to take appropriate action to respond to and mitigate lapses in safety and protocol while serving as commander of Dugway Proving Ground,’ Lt. Col. Jennifer Johnson, an Army spokeswoman, said in a statement.” Nine civilians were also demoted and another soldier was disciplined in this attempt to clean up the biosafety mess that has plagued military labs. Investigators at Dugway found several failures – a biosafety officer who lacked training and education needed for the job, failure to conduct routine environmental tests to ensure there was no breach in containment, and staff who “regularly manipulated data” certifying pathogens were safe to for use without PPE and shipment.

The Failure That Was the 8th RevCon epic-failure-thumbnail1-1
The 8th Review Conference of the BWC has closed and with it, the hope of reaching an agreement on a work plan for the next five years to strengthen the intersessional process. You can read the UN Office at Geneva statement here, in which they note that during the RevCon, a Final Document was adopted (including a Final Declaration on the articles of the Convention), renewal of the mandate of the Implementation Support Unit, and this RevCon had higher attendance than previous BWC meetings. If you’d like detailed overviews of each day’s proceedings, you can find them here – in the last day, you can see the frustrations and disappointment voiced by several countries.. The 8th RevCon did decide that States Parties will hold annual meetings in the process up to the next RevCon (2021), with hopes of reaching consensus regarding the intersessional process. You can also read the statement by U.S. State Department’s spokesperson, John Kirby, here, in which he points to the failures of the group to find consensus on a work plan (a plan that was highly supported by the U.S. and would involve much more intensive expert work to make decisions more frequently than every 5 years) to infuse decision-making and expert work into the intersessional process. Kirby’s statement notes that “While the United States does not support the need to negotiate a supplementary treaty, during the review conference, U.S. negotiators were supportive of creating a space in the post-RevCon work-plan for discussion of the full range of proposals to strengthen the Convention, which would have allowed proponents of a protocol to make their case. Although the United States is disappointed that negotiators did not take this opportunity to strengthen the intersessional process, the lack of consensus on a program of work does not damage the international nonproliferation regime.” While many of the official documents note “disappointment”, the realities of those in attendance were marked with frustration at the utter failure that was the 8th RevCon. Some of the noted frustrations including the halting of summer meeting of experts (MX), failure to increase ISU staff, and again, inability to agree on an intersessional process that would facilitate more real-time decision making with the necessary experts. “In their final declarations many countries, especially from the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), put the blame squarely on Iran (without naming the country). This country’s obsession with returning to a negotiation format like the Ad Hoc Group to achieve the higher goal of a legally binding instrument—possibly with the sole goal of antagonising the USA—led it to exploit to the fullest to principle of consensus decision-making to torpedo any effort at compromise. Many NAM countries—often developing nations—lost out on concrete opportunities for international cooperation and assistance.” You can read the advanced version of the final report here. While this floundering don’t mean the end of the BWC, the lackluster outcome may indicate a gradual slip in overall confidence.

U.S. Military Preps for Gene Drive Woes genetic_manipulation
The new advances in genome editing and biotech point to a bright horizon for innovation, however the safety components to these advances are in need of response measures. DARPA is now working on a new program to respond to potentially harmful or devastating ecosystem outcomes that may come from engineered genes. Safe Genes will be a means of responding to a situation in which the gene-drive systems produce an outcome throughout generations that may be negatively impacting to the ecosystem. This may make genome editing systems, like CRISPR, sound nefarious, but there are growing hopes that this technology could alter insects or pests that carry diseases like malaria, dengue, etc. The gene-drive systems mean that within 20 generations, the newly altered genes could be passed through an entire population of insects (i.e. within 20 generations, a certain species of mosquito could be unable to carry malaria). The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has doubled its spending on gene drive tech and even DARPA has been one of the largest funders of synthetic biology research. While the the rewards may be high, so are the risks. “Kevin Esvelt, head of the Sculpting Evolution lab at MIT Media Lab, which is applying for Safe Genes funding in collaboration with eight other research groups, predicts that eventually, perhaps around 15 years from now, an accident will allow a drive with potential to spread globally to escape laboratory controls. ‘It’s not going to be bioterror,’ he says, ‘it’s going to be ‘bioerror.'” Several research teams, including those at the DARPA program, are looking to remove, replace, or inhibit the unwanted genetic changes that are made in order to best respond to a negative outcome. Getting rid of the engineered genes from a species or habitat is one focus area for DARPA’s new program – the second encourages teams (who received funding from Safe Genes) to create systems for controlling/reversing gene editing tools, and the last focal point is on developing small molecules or antibodies that allow organisms to fight off genome editors at the molecular level. “Evolutionary geneticist Austin Burt, who leads Target Malaria’s research at Imperial College London and has no affiliation with Safe Genes, concurs. The prospect of remediation, he says, ‘shouldn’t give us a cavalier attitude.’ Instead, the goal should be to do the incremental work to anticipate and prevent problems. ‘We have the precedent of biological control,” he says, “where if you have an invasive pest that is destroying your crop, you can release a parasitoid wasp,’ which kills its host. ‘They do a very careful assessment. They don’t have something in their back pocket,’ to delete errors.”

FBI Utilizes Student Bioengineers 
With the growing importance and challenges of biotechnology and genome editing, it’s not surprising the FBI is sponsoring the International Genetically Engineering Machine (iGEM) Competition. iGEM is a way for the FBI to collaborate with the biotech community to better understand the challenges, concerns, and help create a culture of trust and transparency. Stanford senior research scholar, Megan Palmer, highlights this growing relationship and its importance in bioterrorism prevention. Science plays a vital role and to better understand this, why not start with those looking to make a difference in the field? “Bioterror incidents are extremely difficult to predict. In the past governments have built the deadliest biological weapons programs, but one worry is that now small groups may also be able to do serious damage, Palmer says”. The biotech world is constantly evolving and it’s important that law enforcement understand the how’s and why’s of the field so that investigations can be more effective and efficient. In fact, GMU biodefense graduate program director and professor, Gregory Koblentz, is working with Dr. Palmer on a CRISPR project for this very reason. The Departments of Defense and State are even getting in on this approach – create transparency and trust with the biohacker community to better prevent and respond to future threats. Like FBI supervisory special agent, Edward You, Megan is looking to strengthen this relationship prior to “trigger events” (an event in which biologists are suspected to be behind it) to ensure the foundation of communication and trust can combat challenging situations. “But there’s a natural tension between biohackers embedded in fringe communities and government agencies that are traditionally secretive. To Palmer, the key to the collaboration is open communication. So far, it’s going well—Palmer says she has been asking the FBI questions about its involvement, what it sees in the field, and why the agency is spending so much time and effort to be involved, and so far she says they have ‘been willing to have more of those conversations.’”

The Diseases That Worry Public Health Officials 
CDC Director, Thomas Friden, and Susan Desmond-Hellman, Chief Executive of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sat down to discuss the infectious diseases outbreaks that keep them up at night. Frieden noted that every year we identify a new pathogen and every day the CDC starts a new investigation to find a new pathogen. Frieden admits that his biggest worry is pandemic influenza. “Even the 1957 influenza pandemic, which most people haven’t heard of, cost 3% of the world’s gross domestic product. Even SARS, a relatively small outbreak, cost about $30 billion. We don’t know when the next one will come, where it will come from or what it will be. But we’re certain there will be a next one.” Dr. Desmond-Hellmann noted that, “What we learned from Ebola is that there are a couple things that are underutilized and not ready. One is governance. Who makes the call when things happen? The second thing is having the right tools, which is why global health research-and-development is a big focus of our foundation.” Both emphasized the importance of faster and more effective prevention and the role of country accountability in global health security. Truly, Dr. Frieden notes, there is no way to know if a country is ready to handle a health emergency, which is where the GHSA’s Joint External Evaluation has come in as a means of objective, third party, accountability and readiness assessments.

Advances in Radiation Biodosimetry for Mass Casualty Events Involving Radiation Exposure 
GMU biodefense PhD student, Mary Sproull, is looking at the modeling and development of new medical countermeasures for CBRN events. “To respond to large-scale population exposures from a nuclear event or radiation dispersal device (RDD), new methods for determining received dose using biological modeling became necessary. The field of biodosimetry has advanced significantly beyond this original initiative, with expansion into the fields of genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and transcriptomics.” Cytogenetic assessment methods are also being utilized with ramping up laboratory surge capacity. In this assessment, Sproull looks to the progress being made regarding field-deployment readiness in the event of radiation exposure. She notes that the most promising and immediately useful mechanisms for biodosimetry are pointing towards cytogenetic assessment using surge capacity lab networks, proteomics, and genomics-based technologies. “Greater collaboration within each field of biodosimetry would benefit the development of a standardized panel of biological markers for dosimetry assessment. Assessing the application of radiation biodosimetry in special populations, and development of a rapid assay for assessment of partial-body exposures is needed. Critical organ-specific markers of radiation toxicity also need to be identified and validated.”

Zika News 
Shortly after the WHO declared that Zika is no longer a global health emergency, the first case of locally acquired Zika sprung up in Texas. While investigations are ongoing, the latest news points to the importance of maintaining vigilance towards vector control and continued education. The UK has reportedly found its first case of sexually transmitted Zika. You can find the latest updates from the Florida Department of Health here, which reveal two new travel-related cases and four new locally acquired cases on November 30th. A recent study found microcephaly in older babies who were exposed to Zika in the womb. “A study published in the U.S. journal Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reportinvolved 13 babies in two Brazilian states born with small heads, but not small enough to be diagnosed with microcephaly. The babies tested positive for Zika. Imaging scans of the babies’ heads soon after birth showed brain abnormalities. Researchers then followed the infants. Around the time of their first birthday, 11 of the 13 babies were diagnosed with microcephaly. Their heads and brains had not developed in proportion to their growth and size.” Some are saying that the WHO’s move of declaring Zika no longer a public health emergency was a mistake. The CDC has reported 4,496 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of November 30th,

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • Trump Picks HHS Lead – President elect Trump, has selected Republican congressman, Dr. Tom Price, as the US Health Secretary to oversee CDC, NIH, etc. This selection has been met with a mixture of concern while many worry about the challenges to public health under the new administration.
  • New Viral Discoveries– a international research team has found the jackpot of viral discoveries – 1,500 new viruses! Looking for infection in invertebrates (think insects and spiders), the expansion of the catalogue of viruses will help us better understand viral diversity. Genetic sequencing helped these researcher delve deep into the world of viruses – the virosphere. “Next generation sequencing allows researchers to quickly determine the sequence of these letters. And if you work out the order of the letters on any chain of RNA, you can determine if it belongs to a virus and whether or not the virus is new. Its potential for virus discovery is huge.”
  • Traces of MDRO’s Found in Polluted City Air- recent research from Sweden’s University of Gothenburg looked at hundreds of environmental samples worldwide. The results revealed that the samples taken from Beijing, had high levels of antibiotic resistant genes. “‘We studied only a small number of air samples, so to generalize, we need to examine the air from more places,’ explains lead researcher Joakim Larsson. ‘But the air samples we did analyze showed a wide mix of different resistance genes.’ The research doesn’t show whether the bacteria in Beijing’s smog is actually alive – which would significantly increase the threat – but Larsson says it’s ‘reasonable to believe that there is a mixture of live and dead bacteria, based on experience from other studies of air’.”

 

Pandora Report 11.11.2016

The U.S. Election has concluded and whether your candidate is now our presidential elect or you’re just glad it’s all over, here’s something to celebrate – President Obama signed an executive order last week, cementing the GHSA as a national, presidential-level priority. Commitment to GHSA and fighting outbreaks on a global scale is a huge step forward to combating the health crises we’ve seen and will continue to battle in the future. Since researchers recently debunked the myth of Gaëtan Dugas as a primary source for HIV/AIDS in the U.S., check out more stories regarding the misunderstood “patient zero”.  World leaders are starting to realize that the antibiotic clock is ticking away.

Trump and the Issues Within Science
Donald Trump is the new president elect, but where does he stand on issues like Zika? Here’s a compilation of sources that cover his comments and plans for some of the top issues in science. NPR is looking at his comments on global health and humanitarian aid, while some are trying to figure out what Trump’s administration will mean for them and the need for a transition team tutorial. STAT is asking five questions regarding what the Trump administration will mean for science. Sources close to the Trump campaign have stated that two of the “best-known climate skeptics will lead his U.S. EPA transition team“.

It’s Time to Modernize the BWC 
GMU Biodefense graduate program director and professor, Gregory Koblentz teamed up with Filippa Lentzos to discuss why it’s so important for the BWC to modernize. They tackle the reality that while the convention isn’t failing, it’s definitely not flourishing. Despite its dedication to ban a whole class of weapons, the BWC is a somewhat toothless dog. “It lacks a dedicated forum to assess treaty implications of scientific advances, a robust institutional capacity, organized means of helping member nations meet their obligations, provisions for verifying compliance, and an operational role to respond in cases of a serious violations. The upcoming review conference provides a welcome opportunity to begin rectifying some of these shortcomings.” Koblentz and Lentzos point to the consistent challenges of science and technology reviews. Despite a rapidly evolving industry, the BWC hasn’t been able to keep up and maintain an international forum for the debates that are needed. Lagging behind the biotech times means the BWC is running the risk of irrelevance, not to mention the slow shift from the convention towards UNSCR 1540. In this climate, it doesn’t help that there is an even greater need for transparency. Biodefense programs have surged the last two decades, which means that transparency is increasingly important to ensure these programs aren’t biosecurity risks or being perceived as threats and becoming justifications for initiated offensive programs. The reform process is pivotal and this includes organizing a review of relevant S&T developments more systematically, renewing the mandate of an implementation unit, and setting up an Open-Ended Working Group on Providing Reassurance to encourage transparency and engagement in peer review exercises. “The Eighth Review Conference provides an opportunity to revitalize the bioweapons treaty by taking concrete actions to expand its relevance, enhance its capacity to review developments in science and technology, and strengthen the confidence of nations in the peaceful intentions of their fellow treaty members.”

RevCon began this week in Geneva and you can catch the U.S. opening statements by Thomas Countryman, Acting Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security. You can also read Mr. Kim Won-soo’s remarks as High Representative for Disarmament Affairs. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) vice president, Christine Beerli, has also commented, noting that “States Parties should not become complacent; it remains their collective and individual responsibility to ensure that the treaty is implemented effectively. Over the past five years of annual meetings, a great deal of information has been shared and many proposals have been made on how to implement the treaty and improve its effectiveness. Disappointingly, however, there has been little collective agreement.” RevCon experts will also be focusing on new threats that may arise from technology. Guinea just became the 178th State Party to the BWC!

armas-biologicas-2NSABB Meeting on DURC and Other Hot Topics
On Friday, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) hosted a call to review policy updates, new activities, updates from the working group on institutional oversight of the life sciences DURC policy stakeholder engagement, and updates from the Blue Ribbon panel that is currently reviewing the 2014 NIH variola incident. The conference call was fast-paced but covered substantial ground – most of it you can find on the Power Point slides. The policy updates focused on initiatives to strengthen biosafety/biosecurity stewardship. The 2016 NSABB report recommended additional, multidisciplinary evaluation prior to funding decisions and appropriate, ongoing oversight if funding were given to projects. It was noted that this is a particularly exciting time for science as we’re seeing so many advancements in human health, however the applications of these technologies are testing the oversight and policies we currently have in place to ensure science is performed safely (and securely). While they may or may not all be under the purview of the NSABB, the emergence of CRISPR and evolution of genomic sequences and gene drive techs, and abilities to create next gen of chimeras – are all examples of biotech that are evolving very rapidly and we may need to rethink how they fit our current policy and framework. NSAAB has been a part of the DURC conversation with policy focus on research responsibilities and institutional approaches. NSABB is also working on how to increase and approach stakeholder engagement in DURC polices. There were several listed strategies and topics, ranging from regional meetings at universities or panel sessions at conferences like ASM and ASV. The biggest focus was on getting dialogue and metrics across institutions, not to mention the need for feedback to evolve an objective oversight system. The Blue Ribbon panel is working on the review of the NIH variola incident but they did note that the event was handled very well and while there were obvious gaps, they were all addressed and that the interagency work between the FBI, NIH, and CDC went very smoothly.

Sverdlovsk, Three Mile Island, and Government Oversight of Biological Safety
Greg Witt is talking to us about government oversight of biological research and the lessons learned from the Three Mile Island nuclear accident (did I mention that Greg is a nuclear systems engineer?). Pointing to the biosafety failures that have happened recently (remember that time a Pasteur Institute employee improperly took MERS samples on a commercial airline???), Greg pulls together the pieces to paint a bigger mosaic of systemic failure to properly control biological agents. Pointing to similarities between these events (they even happened days apart) he notes that “both were caused, in large part, by errors in maintenance: at Sverdlovsk, technicians neglected to replace an exhaust system filter, while at TMI, staff had isolated an auxiliary feedwater pump during routine maintenance in violation of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rules.”

The Glamor of Bad Science02-ebola-w529-h352
Yours truly is talking about the disparaging addiction we have to dramatic science. I’m a fan of any movie that involves an outbreak, but the truth is that an overwhelming majority of these films depict infectious disease outbreaks so outrageously and dramatically, they have become anti-science. After watching the latest, Inferno, it became increasingly apparent that we’ve created a false threshold for science, specifically infectious diseases, in film. By painting the picture of diseases and outbreak response like that of Outbreak, I Am Legend, and more, we’re creating an increasingly de-sensitized culture. The result of this de-sensitization means that it takes a lot more for people to take infectious disease outbreaks seriously in real life. It’s not a genetically engineered airborne organism that will make flesh rot? Meh – not that big of a deal. Our love of bad infectious disease science in film and television could easily create a culture of poor public health support.

Ebola Was Just the Beginning…Are We Ready?
Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, is highlighting the realities that we simply aren’t ready for the next big virus epidemic. Piot discusses his work during the early days of Ebola in the 1970s, pointing to the challenges of attempting to figure out a novel virus while trying to put out the fires of an outbreak. Describing the 2014 outbreak as a perfect storm, he notes that the WHO response was too slow to act. The globalization of our interconnected world has made the capabilities of an outbreak much greater than 50 years ago. “Piot also believes there will be a ‘Big One’, a big influenza, similar to the likes of the Spanish Flu in World War One and we’re not quite ready for it. Yet. ‘Are we ready?’ Piot asked. ‘A little bit better than a few years ago but we’re not yet up to the job. We can’t afford to wait but we have a plan, and that’s the good news. The world has learnt from the problems of mobilisation around Ebola and we are now in a better situation; there is better technology to allow for more rapid diagnosis’.” Piot stresses the importance of investment in infrastructure, stronger global governance, and vaccine development incentives.

All Things Zika
The Florida Health Department has released their Zika updates here. PAHO has recommended that Bolivian women delay pregnancy to avoid Zika. “Fernando Leanes, PAHO representative in Bolivia, said at a press conference that it was one of several advised measures to avoid the proliferation of microcephaly cases. ‘The epidemic of Zika, from what we have seen in other countries, will have a rise and fall in Bolivia. Therefore, there are options such as delaying the decision to get pregnant in areas where Zika is spreading. This will avoid the dreaded microcephaly and the complications it represents,’ explained Leanes.” An $18 million plan was just announced to release Zika-resistant mosquitoes into urban areas of Colombia and Brazil.  “A swarm of Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes–the species that transmits dengue, yellow fever, chikungunya and Zika, have been modified to carry a bacterium called Wolbachia pipientis, which inhibits their ability to spread the viruses. Scientist released these ‘good mosquitoes’ in Brazil as part of a successful international program called ‘Eliminate Dengue’.” Many researchers are wondering why Colombia has had such few Zika-associated birth defects. They are the second largest outbreak in the world, yet have much fewer cases of microcephaly than Brazil. Researchers have noted that adult women in Puerto Rico were significantly more likely to develop Zika than men. The CDC has reported 4,175 cases of Zika in the U.S. as of November 9th, 2016.

Stories You May Have Missed:

  • How Trauma Explains Civil War– Don’t miss this event today at GMU’s Arlington campus, Founders Hall, Room 602. Eric Goepner will be discussing his research as to why “hurt people hurt people” and hypothesizing that a population’s prior traumatization predicts future civil war onset.
  • Searching for Ebola’s Hideout – The recent ebola outbreak is over, but this doesn’t mean the disease is gone. In fact, ebola is known for hiding out..so where has it gone? Leigh Cowart and other researchers are looking to stop future Ebola outbreaks by finding its hiding spot. “Such a long-term host, the quiet refuge of a pathogen, is known as a reservoir species. If a reservoir species is Ebola’s safe house, we are its luxury retirement property, a place for it to live out its last days with a bang. The trouble is that we aren’t sure where the safe house is. If we are going to be vigilant against Ebola’s re-emergence, we need to find it.”
  • The UK Forms Special Outbreak Response Team– with a five-year £20m funding, the UK is setting up a specialist team of health experts who will be able to respond to outbreaks around the world within 48 hours. “Public Health England will run the project with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Duncan Selbie, chief executive of Public Health England, said: ‘Speed is key in tackling infectious disease and with this new capability we can now deploy specialists anywhere in the world within 48 hours, saving and protecting lives where an outbreak starts and helping to keep the UK safe at home.'”

 

Pandora Report 5.9.14

The stories this week cover topics that I am especially interested in: avian flu in Antarctica, wild poliovirus, and the Russia biological weapons program. Have a great weekend!

Avian Influenza Present in Antarctic Penguins

A team of international researchers have discovered a new strain of avian influenza among Adelie penguin populations in Antarctica which has been identified as H11N2. Presence of this strain of influenza was found in eight penguins from a sample size of 301 swabbed penguins and 270 penguins who had had blood drawn. Though the six adult penguins and two chicks only represent 2.6% of the total group, approximately 16% of the samples contained antibodies for H11N2, indicating the virus has likely been present in the population for “some length of time.”

Guardian Liberty Voice—“There has already been a theory posited which might explain how the H11N2 virus was transmitted to the Antarctic region. Due to both the relatively small incidence of the virus in the sample population, and the region from which the sample size was drawn. Hurt has posited that the introduction of the virus into the Antarctic ecosystem was conducted by migratory birds from South America, such as the yellow-billed pintail duck. This conclusion has been supported by the fact that distant similarities between the H11N2 strain of the virus and South American AIVs, primarily from Brazil and Chile, do in fact exist.”

Wild Poliovirus Making a Comeback, WHO says

In a statement made on Monday, the WHO applauded worldwide efforts to eradicate polio while cautioning that the wild poliovirus is spreading and may negate the hard fought eradication efforts. They declared this spread of wild poliovirus a Public Health Emergency of International Concern and warned that if the spread remains unchecked “this situation could result in failure to eradicate globally one of the world’s most serious vaccine preventable diseases.” The WHO declared that Pakistan, Cameroon, and Syria pose the greatest risk of wild poliovirus exportation while Afghanistan, Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, Israel, Somalia and Nigeria are infected with wild poliovirus but are not exporting it.

National Geographic—“The effort is to break the chains of transmission. The WHO is recommending that countries currently infected with polio ensure that their people who are traveling outside the country get vaccinated. About 72 percent of the people who are infected with the polio virus have no symptoms, but they can still spread the disease. Polio is now in just a few countries. The concern is not to re-infect the countries that have gotten rid of polio.”

Lawmakers Mull Biological Weapons Threat from Russia

Providing an opportunity for me to majorly geek out, the U.S. House of Representatives held a committee hearing this week regarding the biological weapons threat from Russia and beyond. Witnesses included Dr. Christopher Davis, a biomedical weapons expert and former member of the U.K.’s Defense Intelligence Staff; Dr. Amy E. Smithson, a senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies; Milton Leitenberg, a senior research scholar at the University of Maryland and author of The Soviet Biological Weapons Program; and Dr. David Franz, former Commander of USAMRIID.

Time—“Leitenberg said it’s almost impossible to evaluate the extent of the Russian biological weapons stockpile because three Russian laboratories remain closed to outside inspection. “We don’t know what they’re doing,” Leitenberg said. ‘They may or may not have an active offensive program—I presume they do. I do not believe that the U.S. government thinks they are producing and stockpiling agent any more, but we don’t know that.’”

A recording of the hearing is available here.

 

Image Credit: Andrew Mandemaker/ Wikimedia Commons

Nepal Moves To Ratify BWC

by Alena M. James

Last week the Nepalese Government, working with the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs, made efforts to develop strategies for the national implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention during the Workshop on National Implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). With assistance from the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Asia and the Pacific, the BWC Implementation Support Unit, and with financial support from the European Union, the workshop on implementing the BWC was held in Katmandu February 20-21.

During the workshop individuals representing 12 agencies of the Nepalese Government, officials from the UNRCPD, members from the EU, and subject matter experts gathered to discuss topics which must be considered for Nepal to start the ratification process of the BWC.  Several topics discussed during the workshop included methods to enhance confidence-building measures by the state, treaty enforcement measures, the development of codes of conduct, and the establishment of biosafety and biosecurity standards. Dr. Jean Pascal Zanders, an international expert on CBRNs nonproliferation, and Yasmin Balci, a legal officer from VERTIC, a non-profit organization dedicated to advising states on the national implementation of BWC, provided their insight and expertise in helping Nepal’s agency representatives to initiate an effective trajectory towards ratification of the treaty.

Currently, there are 110 Signatory States to the BWC and 168 State Parties. However, ten signatory states have yet to ratify the treaty including Syria; which some allege as possibly having a BW program. Opening for signature in 1972, the BWC was the first treaty to outlaw a specific type of WMD. The treaty was enforced in 1975 and bans the production, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons. Its purpose is to prevent the proliferation and use of such weapons by members of the international community.

Since its inception, the BWC has faced a plethora of challenges especially with regards to its verification process. Unlike the NPT and the CWC, the BWC does not have a verification regime to ensure state compliance.  As a result, the BWC holds review conferences every five years to discuss challenges facing the BWC and mechanisms for improving verification protocol.  So far, the use of confidence building measures have been the primary tools used by the treaty to prohibit these weapons. There are six measures that BWC member states must adhere to which includes the declaration of past offensive and defensive programs, the declaration of vaccine production facilities, and the active exchange of scientific information between states.  The primary goal of the measures is to encourage all states to be both open and transparent regarding state supported scientific research and development operations.

The reliance on states voluntarily complying with the confidence building measures and the work-in-progress verification system of the BWC have been attacked by many critics as the BWC’s most fundamental weakness.  Despite this criticism, one aspect of the BWC that deserves applause is the collaborative efforts of the UN, the BWC Implementation Support Unit, and the EU aiding countries to move towards national implementation of the BWC. In the absence of an authorized verification regime, this collaborative group of intergovernmental organizations has stepped up by taking an active approach in getting countries to uphold their commitments to the BWC. The collaborative group has done so by making workshops such as those held in Kathmandu possible.

The workshop held in Nepal is one of several workshops hosted by the UNODA, the Support Unit, and the EU in the past few months to generate BWC compliance. These workshops are a part of the EU’s BWC Action project which sets out to provide human resources, logistical resources, financial resources, and equipment to states in order to reach universal compliance of the BWC.  On September 3, 2013, the collaborative group orchestrated the Regional Workshop on the National Implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention in South and South-East Asia.  Like the workshop held in Kathmandu, this workshop brought together a number of key individuals to discuss BWC implementation strategies.  In early December 2013, the UNODA  worked with United Nations Regional Centre for Peace and Disarmament in Africa (UNREC) to host two national workshops in the countries of Benin and Burkina Faso facilitating open dialogue regarding the implementation of the BWC.

While critics of the BWC point to the lack of a verification body as a weakness, it seems this appears to be promoting active participation by intergovernmental organizations like the EU to encourage states who have not ratified the BWT to do so.  Such active participation and international collaboration is exactly what the global community needs in order to promote international security against the threats of such WMDs.

In August 2013, the international community witnessed the alleged use of another type of WMD prohibited by the CWC. Syria, a then non-party member of the CWC, was accused of deploying chemical weapons on its own civilians.  The use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government has not yet been confirmed and speculations on the deployment of the chemical weapons by rebel forces continue to circulate. An analytical study executed by MIT professor Theodore Postol and former UN weapons inspector Richard Lloyd, suggests plausibility in the idea that the rebel forces fighting against the Bashar Al Assad regime may be responsible for using chemical weapons against civilians. Such a suggestion, if confirmed true, would exculpate the Syrian government.

As the international community’s investigation of chemical weapons deployment in Syria continues, there is already an important lesson that the Syrian case portrays. This lesson lies in the inability of the UN and the CWC’s verification regime, Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPWC), in identifying the perpetrators of the attacks. This ambiguity of the origin of the chemical weapons demonstrates a futuristic challenge that the international community could experience if a state not party to the BWC (or who has not yet ratified the treaty) faced alleged uses of biological weapons.  It is for this reason that the collaborative efforts of intergovernmental organizations like UNODA and the EU, must continue to facilitate open dialogue regarding universal compliance of the BWC. The workshops held by the UNODA in states that have not yet ratified the Biological Weapons Treaty provide an active approach that pushes to make universal compliance of this 42 year old treaty a reality.

The initial coverage on the Workshop on National Implementation of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in Nepal can be found at unrcpd.org.

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