Logo IMG


The Growing Threat of Biological Weapons

The terrorist threat is very real, and it's about to get worse. Scientists should concern themselves before it's too late

Steven Block

A Meaningful Bioweapons Treaty

All told, it's suspected that more than a dozen sovereign nations possess some form of offensive bioweapons program, assuming one includes some republics of the former Soviet Union. How can this proliferation be controlled? One approach is to muster international resources to enhance and strengthen the provisions of the BWC??giving it some "teeth." This would include verification measures that monitor treaty compliance, including reciprocal inspection visits to suspected bioweapons facilities. This is an essential component of modern arms-control regimes, similar to those implemented for nuclear weapons treaties.

An international group of BWC participants has been convened since January 1995 to accomplish just that, under the chairmanship of Ambassador Tibor T??th of Hungary. It carries the ponderous name of "The Ad Hoc Group of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Prohibition, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction"??or simply the "Ad Hoc Group." By now the Ad Hoc Group has met for more than 50 weeks in Geneva. The draft treaty they have prepared is as ponderous as the group's name: It currently weighs in at several hundred pages, including an astonishing 1,500 "bracketed" paragraphs??which denote passages where there continues to be disagreement.

For the moment, progress of the Ad Hoc Group seems depressingly stalled. Embarrassingly, the United States itself bears a direct responsibility for many brackets, as it has steadfastly resisted certain attempts to establish provisions for inspections. The U.S. position is motivated by a desire to protect the interests of the powerful American biotechnology sector, which fears that inspection visits may be intrusive, or used as a pretext for industrial espionage. There has been limited progress on this front with the release last May of a joint statement by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America and the Federation of American Scientists who agreed on "managed-access" measures in support of verification.

Another sticking point rests on a constitutional issue: It is one thing for the U.S. government to authorize visits to its own labs and bases, but can it mandate visits to privately held facilities? Some have argued that such inspections may require warrants. However, under the Fourth Amendment, warrants are necessary only if actions rise to the level of a "search." Federal courts have generally held that the subject of a search must enjoy an expectation of privacy??but this standard is stricter for individuals than it is for corporate entities, particularly for industries that are highly regulated. Moreover, the Supreme Court has already recognized that valid exceptions exist to the warrant requirement??for example, for drunk driving, contraband and immigration documentation??and compliance with a vital international treaty certainly should qualify as a valid exception.

As the world's remaining superpower, the United States bears a unique responsibility to take the moral high ground in this process, assuming a leadership role in support of meaningful weapons treaties that establish international norms. A way must be found before a singular opportunity is lost.

Figure 5. Scud missilesClick to Enlarge Image

comments powered by Disqus


Of Possible Interest

Letters to the Editors: Mosquito Vectors of Zika

Feature Article: Restoring Depth to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa

Perspective: Taking the Long View on Sexism in Science

Subscribe to American Scientist