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Biological Weapons :
Easy to produce and difficult to control
By
Alexander Kelle
 
 
 
Keywords:  Fermentation technology; Warfare; Vaccines (human); Biofertilizers; Biopesticides; Trade; International organization.
Correct citation: Kelle, A. (1998), "Biological Weapons: Easy to produce and difficult to control." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 35, p. 18-21.
 
The agents for biological weapons (BWs) are easy to produce and have a tremendous power to harm. At the same time, their production is difficult to control, because harmful micro-organisms are easily available and the equipment for manufacturing them is also used for civil purposes. Control of the spread of BWs could also hamper the export of biotechnology in general.

Potential agents for biological weapons include living micro-organisms such as bacteria, rickettsiae fungi and viruses that cause infections resulting in incapacitation or death. Harmful agents also comprise non-living chemicals manufactured by bacteria, fungi, plants and animals (see box 1). For a variety of reasons, use of these agents for manufacturing BWs is more difficult to detect and prevent than military programmes aiming at the production of chemical or nuclear weapons of mass destruction.
Firstly, the large number of potential BW agents complicates the arms control task. Secondly, since BW agents are living organisms which can easily multiply, there is no need to have large production and storage facilities A small amount of a pathogen with a completely legitimate civil application can thus grow into a military significant amount within a short period of time. Thirdly, pathogens can be used in the production of vaccines to protect the civil population against endemic diseases or to protect armed forces against BWs of a potential adversary. Therefore, they cannot be banned from export entirely. Fourthly, also equipment like fermenters are essentially of a dual-use character. All facilities necessary in a BW programme are also indispensable for civil purpose procedures such as the production of pharmaceuticals or proteins for animal feed.
As a result, efforts to control the spread of BWs need more than noticing the mere presence of pathogens, toxins, or equipment to conclude that a country is undertaking a military BW programme.

Different bioweapon programmes 

There are numerous naturally occurring microbial agents and toxins that could be used as BW agents, such as Bacillus anthracis (splenic fever or anthrax), botulinum toxin, Yersinia pestis (plague), different types of Brucella bacili (brucellosis), Coxiella burnetii (Q-fever), Francisella tularensis (tularemia, or rabbit fever), and three equine encephalitis viruses which are members of the Alphavirus family (viral encephalitis). Most of these agents have been tested and in some cases even been developed into weapons. 
All of these are naturally occurring agents and toxins, whose utility as potential BW agent was first investigated systematically during the First World War, when Germany developed an ambitious biological warfare programme. Between the First and Second World War, a number of European countries as well as Canada began basic research programmes to develop biological weapons. The extent of all these programmes, however, is negligible in comparison with the large-scale Japanese BW programme that was operated in occupied Manchuria from 1932 to 1945. The Japanese Unit 731 consisted of more than 3,000 scientists and technicians. Research was done on a number of BW agents such as Bacillus anthracis, Yersinia pestis, and Vibrio cholerae. At least 10,000 prisoners died due to BW experimentation. Another 10,000 fatalities are reported as the result of a BW attack on a Chinese city in 1941. 
In contrast, an offensive German BW programme did not materialize during the Second World War. Despite the limited progress of the Germans, the Allies developed biological weapons as a potential retaliatory measure, should German BW use occur. In 1942, allied efforts comprised experiments with spores of Bacillus anthracis on Gruinard Island, which is located off the Scottish coast. These experiments resulted in the long term contamination of the island until its decontamination in 1986. 
Starting in 1942 the USA maintained an offensive BW programme until the end of the 1960s, investigating a number of potential agents and leading to the weaponization of Bacillus anthracis, botulinum toxin, Francisella tularensis, Brucella suis, Staphylococcal enterotoxin B, and the Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus
Since World War II, a variety of allegations of BW use were brought forward, but could not be substantiated. The former Soviet Union, China and North Korea for example accused the USA of biological warfare during the Korean War. Similarly, the USA maintained that the Soviet Union and its allies used trichothecene mycotoxins in Laos, Kampuchea, and Afghanistan. Again, no evidence supporting the allegations was found. However, short of BW use, a number of countries were and still are suspected of having offensive BW programmes. Most prominently, the BW programme of the former Soviet Union which was inherited by Russia, contained offensive research and development of biological weapons. First indications of this programme became public in April 1979, when an unintentional release of anthrax spores in Ekatarinenburg, Russia, killed more than 60 people in the vicinity of a military microbiology facility. In 1992, the Russian government confirmed the incident as well as the Ekaterinenburg facility being part of a larger offensive BW programme, and announced that the remains of the Soviet programme would be terminated. Yet, despite a Trilateral Process established among Russia, the United Kingdom, and the USA, the status of the BW programme is still unclear. 
After the defeat in the Gulf War of 1991 Iraq admitted to having undertaken an ambitious BW programme. This programme included investigation in potential agents as well as large scale production and weaponization. Iraq produced more than 8.5 m3 of anthrax and an even larger amount of botulinum toxin. In addition, at least 150 bombs and 25 missile warheads were filled with BW agent. 
The list of potential BW possessors varies, depending on the sources used. However, there is an overlap of suspected countries from these lists which include China, India, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, Syria, and Taiwan. Practically all of these countries can be assumed to focus their research on the classical, naturally occurring BW agents.

 
The Biological Weapons Convention
To prevent the spread of technologies and organisms for biological warfare, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was concluded in 1972. It became a legally binding international treaty in 1975. The BWC currently has 139 member states. The dual-use problem as inherent in controlling BWs has been addressed in the BWC by what is frequently called the "general purpose criterion". Article 1 of the Convention does not focus on specific biological agents for prohibition. Rather, the intended use is made the yardstick for judging legitimate and illegitimate purposes. It states that:
"Each State Party to this Convention undertakes never in any circumstances efforts to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain:
(1) Microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, whatever their origin or method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes
(2) Weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict.
"
It has to be emphasized, however, that this wording leaves open the more subtle dual-use problem of distinguishing between legitimate defensive military research and a prohibited offensive military BW programme. The Soviet Union, for instance, ratified the BWC but had an offensive BW programme that only became known by accident.
Article 1 implies that the BWC covers all types of pathogens and toxins, independent of their origin or method of production. This includes genetically modified micro-organisms as well as so-called "ethnic" bioweapons (see box 2). Unlike the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the BWC does not contain any clause restricting trade between state parties and non-signatories, nor does it contain any other guideline for behaviour vis-à-vis non-signatories.

The role of export controls
One point of contention that regularly came up during review conferences were trade restrictions in the form of export controls. According to critics, most vocally from developing countries like India, Pakistan and Iran, export control measures are in direct contradiction to Article 10 of the BWC, which states that "this Convention shall be implemented in a manner designed to avoid hampering the economic or technological developments of States Parties to the Convention or international co-operation in the field of bacteriological (biological) activities". In contrast, proponents of export controls, most notably the technologically advanced states of Europe, North America, and Asia, point out that these measures are just one way of putting into effect Article 3 of the BWC. According to this article, states parties are under the obligation not to transfer any of the agents, toxins, weapons, equipments, or means of delivery specified in Article 1, if the intended end-use is prohibited by the Convention.
A closer look at the debate on export controls makes clear that most critics fear that export control would mean export denial. The criticism, however, has not been substantiated with concrete figures on the trade that has been denied to developing countries. At present, export control critics are not able or not willing to provide a list of cases in which exports were denied even though the agents were for unambiguously peaceful application. On the other hand, the media have reported that in the middle of the 1980s the UK denied the export of anthrax cultures to Iraq. Iraq signed the BWC in 1972, but has not ratified the convention. In the light of Iraq’s ambition for a BW programme, the export denial seems to have been the right decision.
Furthermore, the industrialized states that are accused of withholding essential technologies and material from developing countries in general have an interest in the free export of their biotechnology industries.
Proponents of export controls on dual-use goods and equipment claim that these measures have to ensure the civil application of exported commodities and services. This means that export control authorities have to be able to identify illegal exports and have deterring sanctions available. Although export controls on dual-use goods and equipment pursued in isolation from other non-proliferation measures cannot prevent the acquisition of BWs, they can slow down the procurement process and increase costs. When coordinated among supplier states, export controls increase the hurdles for a procuring state. Harmonized export controls make it more difficult for a potential importer to play one supplier off against another supplier.
Although coordinated export controls would probably not have prevented Iraq from acquiring the necessary components for its BW programme, such coordinated controls would have made the acquisition more difficult. However, the rejection of export requests by the UK was additionally complicated because Iraq had set up an acquisition network of civil companies and institutions. Accordingly, Iraq could claim that it was engaged in legitimate civil trade only.

Modern biotechnology and bioweapons 

So-called "new bioweapons" are based on the recent developments in microbiology and genetic engineering. Modern biotechnology can be used for the production of new biological agents or to adapt the characteristics of pathogens already used in biological weapons. Such traits are, for instance, environmental stability, increased virulence or antibiotic resistance. This might be accomplished by the genetic modification of naturally occurring micro-organisms which in turn might be less susceptible to vaccination or other medical treatment. So far they seem to have been subject to investigation only in the past Soviet BW programme. 
In recent years, speculations on the development of even more advanced "ethnic bioweapons", have raised consideration. These weapons would target genetically distinctive groups of human beings. The mapping of the entire human genome by the Human Genome Project and research on the genetic diversity, for instance by the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP) leads to a better understanding of genetic differences as well as similarities amongst different human populations. For the future, this knowledge makes a development of "ethnical bioweapons" conceivable. However, at present there is no valid proof for their existence.

 
The Australia Group
One very efficient undertaking to coordinate export controls on dual-use items is the Australia Group, founded in 1985. Although the members of the Australia Group are also State Parties to the BWC there is no formal link between the two. Rather, the Group is an informal gathering for export control harmonization and information sharing. The Group’s original purpose was to constrain the trade in technologies and materials of chemical warfare. It was created in response to the rapid proliferation of chemical weapons, their use in the Iran-Iraq war, and the limited progress in negotiations on the Chemical Weapons Convention. An equally important function of the Group is the exchange of intelligence concerning the procurement activities of suspected proliferators. Membership of the Group has doubled from the fifteen founding members to now 30 states, including states from the South. In 1990, Australia Group members agreed to expand their controls to cover dual-use BW agents and toxins, as well as equipment necessary for their production. Since the BWC does not allow for verification of the declared end-uses of exported items, the Australia Group decided to take additional precautions. Besides pathogens, also dual-use equipment like fermenters, centrifuges, aerosol chambers, and filter and freeze-drying machines with certain technical specifications were subjected to controls.
Dual-use export controls in general and the work of the Australia Group in particular were not only hotly debated during regular Review Conferences of the BWC, they also represent an important issue in strengthening the BWC. A group of governmental experts was established to identify potential verification measures and assess them from a scientific and technical viewpoint. When the report of that Group was discussed during a Special Conference of the states parties to the BWC in September 1994, the question of trade restrictions took centre stage. It became apparent that a number of states were hesitant to establish a verification system for the BWC. The USA insisted that because of the nature of bioweapons and the dual-use problem involved, the BWC simply was not verifiable. However, the USA was willing to negotiate measures to enhance compliance with the convention as long as "verification" was not mentioned. The Movement of Non-Aligned Countries, too, objected to the idea of a verification regime. Some countries were simply concerned that it would only bring costs without enhancing their security, others saw the danger of having to explain BW related activities if inspectors would pay them a visit. These countries managed to include a negotiation task for measures to strengthen the implementation of Article 10 of the BWC, according to which, peaceful cooperation in the biological sciences must not be compromised by the BWC. The topic of the limitation of technological developments thereby reappeared on the agenda of the BWC negotiations on a protocol to strengthen compliance with the convention.

Inspections on biotechnology activities
Although the protocol to the BWC is currently being negotiated in an Ad Hoc Group, one should not expect that export controls will become an important element. The BWC is and will remain first and foremost an arms control agreement. It will affect the biotechnology industry only through the conduct of visits, inspections, or investigations. However, there is practically no BWC state party in the Ad Hoc Group advocating an extensive verification regime with a large number of inspections. Firstly, it seems too costly to cover all dual-use facilities world-wide with such a verification system. Secondly, some countries, for instance the USA and Japan, are afraid of industrial espionage and therefore want to restrict the numbers of inspected facilities. The focus of these measures would not be like the current inspection regime in Iraq which is based on resolutions adopted by the United Nations Security Council (SC). It allows inspectors of the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) to have unrestricted access to all facilities at any time. The purpose of the UNSCOM inspections is to verify that Iraq destroys all its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, and does not acquire these weapons anew. In contrast, the purpose of visits, inspections or investigations as suggested by the Ad Hoc Group will be to confirm that States Parties to the BWC are behaving in conformity with their obligations under the Convention. Only if these non-confrontational measures hint at a possible violation of the BWC, more intrusive inspections can be expected to take place.
Surveys on the triggers for declarations and, following from that, investigations and visits have come up with 30 to 50 facilities that would have to be declared in countries like Canada, the Netherlands, Italy and the Scandinavian countries. Declarable are, for instance, facilities that work with pathogens or toxins suitable for BWs, microbiological production facilities for vaccines or antibiotics or the production of biopesticides. Extrapolating from these figures, developing countries are expected to declare even fewer facilities and to host correspondingly fewer inspections. However, these verification measures would not detect a treaty violation with guaranteed certainty. Instead, this limited approach should increase confidence in the compliant behaviour of BWC member states. Although these measures would interfere with the activities of biotechnological facilities, the disruption would be limited.
Alexander Kelle

Research Associate, Non-Proliferation Project, Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, Leimenrode 29, D-60322 Frankfurt/Main, Germany. E-mail kelle@em.uni-frankfurt.de

Sources
M. R. Dando (1994), Biological Warfare in the 21st Century. Biotechnology and the proliferation of biological weapons. London, UK: Brassey’s.

A. Kelle (1997), Atombombe des kleinen Mannes? Die Bekämpfung der Weiterverbreitung von biologischen Waffen nach der Vierten Überprüfungskonferenz des Biowaffen-Übereinkommens. HSFK-Report 6/1997. Frankfurt/Main, Germany: Peace Research Institute.

G.S. Pearson and M.R. Dando (eds.) (1996), Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention. Key points for the fourth Review Conference. Geneva, Switzerland: Quaker United Nations Office.

O. Thränert (ed.) (1996), Enhancing the Biological Weapons Convention. Bonn, Germany: Dietz.



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