BioWeapons Prevention Project

BioWeapons Prevention Project
Civil society preparations for the 7th BWC Review Conference 2011 The Authors

What role does biosecurity play in preventing bioweapons development?

Peter Clevestig - "Exploring the role of civilian stakeholders and biosecurity in preventing bioweapons activities" - 7 September 2011 ↓expand↓

The intersessional meetings for the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) have, in many ways, successfully engaged a larger community of stakeholders in the life sciences. This has helped to support a better understanding of how to operationalize the Convention. However, the actual impact on this community may yet prove to be rather limited. At first it appears only logical that the BTWC, which emerged from a very different security context from today, needed to evolve towards addressing issues related to non-state threats and civil sector activities. The tipping point was, of course, the posting of anthrax letters in 2001 in the United States and the ensuing measures taken to reduce risks posed from biological materials and technologies (driven mainly by the US). Coinciding and subsequent developments that fed into this process included various acts (planned or otherwise) of terrorism in Europe, reports indicating interest in biological warfare (BW) by non-state actors and containment/procedural failures at legitimate civilian laboratories. Such developments led to an increased focus on ways to identify and reduce biorisks and bioterrorism became a major threat priority area for many, mainly Western states over the past decade. Public acceptance of this was strengthened partly through a greater realization of its own vulnerability to the natural spread of infectious diseases, such as SARS and avian influenza. Not since the emergence of HIV and AIDS in early- to mid-1980’s had developed countries come to feel personally affected by infectious diseases until SARS emerged as a reminder.

The two intersessional meetings (2003 – 2005 and 2007 – 2010) have engaged academic research communities and industry, partly in an effort to explore biological threat reduction options through discussions and consultation on biosafety, biosecurity, disease surveillance and response and other policy and procedural mechanisms. In view of the fact that the Convention lacks a permanent verification structure and associated procedures, such discussions and consultation can be viewed as a ’next best’ alternative that is politically acceptable to the member states and serves as a holistic approach to reducing biorisks has been recognized from the stakeholders. They may also be viewed (perhaps more positively) as an attempt to strengthen the legitimacy and relevance of the Convention in the current international security context, which also reflects changes in science and technology. A logical approach in this respect has been to examine the role of biosecurity in preventing biological weapons development under the auspices of the Convention.

The first problem with this approach is that biosecurity is a term used in a variety of situations to address a wide range of biological threats. The understanding depends on one’s position and professional background. Furthermore, language barriers make the distinction even more difficult as biosafety and biosecurity are described using the same nomenclature in many countries. A further difficulty in distinguishing the two relates to determining the motive of ‘activities of concern’. Furthermore, biosecurity in the public sector laboratory context is still in its infancy (as opposed to the military and private sectors). A possible explanation for this, and one, which would also contribute towards understanding the reluctance of the life science community to engage in BW discussions, is the nature of the science itself. In contrast to the fields of nuclear and chemical sciences -- where there is a historical connection to industry and the military, the life sciences have primarily been driven by the civil sector (i.e., academia and public health institutions). Such communities have yet to be exposed or sensitized to a culture of security otherwise common in other scientific disciplines having direct (perceived or otherwise) military applications. Therefore, it may appear convenient (from the arms control perspective) to ‘modernize’ BW threat reduction activity by involving life science stakeholders (in primarily the public sector) and, in effect, shift the responsibility for BW prevention by placing it under the auspices of biosecurity. It would be useful to consider whether and how such an approach might be useful or become counter-productive. Stakeholders have yet to be presented with a compelling rationale for accepting that they must undertake measures on a routine basis to mitigate BW risks in part because the actual risks of BW (which ought to rest on a firm scientific base) are not sufficiently clear. Thus there is a gap between the potential (or actual) BW threat and its perceived relevance to the civilian research communities. Strategies towards addressing this gap could include:
  1. enhanced awareness raising activities through discussion of risks associated with historical state BW programmes within a scientific context and the legal norms against BW as contained in the BTWC,
  2. creating a neutral space for discussion and engagement among policy and arms control specialists and senior scientists on science and technology oversight evaluation mechanisms and associated best practices, and
  3. avoidance of repetition through involving the same experts who already understand the issues at hand and instead widen the scope of the stakeholders involved.
Unless the relevant stakeholders understand the concerns regarding contemporary BW risks, and how they have evolved over the last four decades, biosecurity may retain little to no operational relevance for microbiologists and scientists and achieve little towards addressing potential future biological weapons development. Procedures and mechanisms should be considered which allow for the consideration of potential specific compliance concern and which maintain and strengthen the ability of the member states to recognize the nature and relevance of activities and programmes that could undermine the legal prohibition against biological warfare, including with respect to ongoing scientific and technological developments.


Kirk C. Bansak - "Biosecurity: Past, present, and future" - 25 September 2011 ↓expand↓

The 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States galvanized the states parties to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) to embrace the need for stronger biosecurity practices.1 However, much of the international community had already recognized the importance of biosecurity in preventing biological weapons risks during the previous decade, as the result of another major shock to the international security environment: the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union. Upon the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, WMD stockpiles and facilities throughout the newly independent states were left inadequately guarded and maintained. One of the many components of the international community’s response was to enhance biosecurity at facilities formerly involved in the Soviet biological weapons program.2

The international community was responding to very different developments in 1991 and 2001, and consequently, conceptualizations of biosecurity took different forms. A comparison of the two cases can help to illuminate the function of biosecurity in mitigating biological weapons risks into the future. Below are two examples.

The Target of Biosecurity: A Contrast

Whereas the post-1991 response aimed to prevent access to dangerous materials by both non-state actors and (rogue) state agents, the post-2001 biosecurity agenda has focused almost exclusively on the threat of bioterrorism.

In the post-Soviet context, biological munitions and other offensive items were vulnerable and theoretically alluring to both state and non-state actors.3 In contrast, the more recent biosecurity agenda generally assumes the good faith of states and seeks to prevent criminal and terrorist access to dual-use materials and technologies that are used in peaceful research laboratories. This agenda also targets insider threats—that is, the threat of laboratory employees stealing or intentionally misusing dangerous biological agents and technologies. The post-2001 focus on non-state threats is consistent with the finding by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation that the perpetrator of the 2001 anthrax attacks was a “lone wolf” employee of a U.S. military biodefense institute. Yet it is not inconceivable that a foreign state-sponsored agent could also be motivated to steal a dangerous pathogen or sensitive technology from a peaceful laboratory when acquisition by other means presents complications, as might be the case with highly controlled pathogens such as the smallpox virus.

Thus, while biosecurity is perhaps better suited to preventing biological weapons threats posed by non-state actors, it has historical and ongoing applicability to mitigating state threats to an extent. Unfortunately, however, biosecurity measures have limited utility in preventing those states with the requisite resources and resolve from developing biological weapons—a reality that highlights the importance of being able to assess and enforce compliance with the BWC.

The Role of Law: A Comparison

Both the post-1991 and post-2001 responses demonstrated the centrality of law as a prerequisite for effective biosecurity efforts and practices.

The responses by the United States provide a good illustration. The U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction program, the country’s foremost effort to secure and eliminate WMD and their associated infrastructure in the former Soviet states, has its foundations in proactive legislation.4 Moreover, the program’s ongoing operation, including its biosecurity component, has been dependent over the years on annual defense appropriations bills being signed into law. While this is a fairly routine procedure, the inextricability of law from defense and security activities should not be overlooked. Similarly, efforts to enhance U.S. biosecurity since 2001 have also been anchored in law, namely the Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness Response Act of 2002. With this legal framework, the United States has been able to enact the Select Agents and Toxins Regulations to restrict access to dangerous pathogens and toxins.5

In addition, the states parties to the BWC have recognized the nexus between biological weapons nonproliferation, biosecurity, and national law. While the direct relevance of biosecurity to the BWC has been debated, the states parties themselves have not only acknowledged a conceptual link, but also formalized this link through an official agreement in the final document of the Sixth BWC Review Conference in 2006, calling upon the states parties to “ensure the safety and security of microbial or other biological agents or toxins in laboratories, facilities, and during transportation, to prevent unauthorized access to and removal of such agents or toxins.” Moreover, the agreement directs the states parties to achieve this objective through adoption of “legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures, including penal legislation.”6

In sum, the states parties’ agreement demonstrates two important final points. First, biosecurity should be and is used as a component of preventing the development of biological weapons, whether by state or non-state actors. Second, for biosecurity (as well as international law and international security policy more generally) to be effective, it must be backed by the appropriate national laws.

  1. To avoid ambiguity, we should define what we mean when using terms like “biosecurity” that have alternative meanings in different contexts. Here, “biosecurity” is used in its comparatively narrow sense as referring to the measures aimed at preventing the theft or intentional removal of dangerous biological materials from biological research laboratories and related facilities.
  2. Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Russia: Biological Overview,” updated June 2011,
  3. In fact, while perhaps not biosecurity per se, the biological threat reduction mission in the former Soviet states has also included so-called “brain drain prevention” efforts aimed at stemming the potential flow of former biological weapons scientists into other countries’ illicit weapons programs. See Jonathan B. Tucker, "Bioweapons in Russia: Stemming the Flow," Issues in Science and Technology 15 (3), Spring 1999,
  4. The legislation was sponsored in 1991 by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar, resulting in the program being commonly called the “Nunn-Lugar Program.” See Nuclear Threat Initiative, “The Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction (CTR) Program,” updated January 2005,
  5. U.S. National Select Agent Registry, “Select Agents Regulations,” updated September 24, 2010,
  6. Final Document of the Sixth Review Conference of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, Geneva, Switzerland, November 20 – December 8, 2006, BWC/CONF.VI/6, p. 10,


Dr. Elisande Nexon - "Biosafety and biosecurity – Convergence between life sciences and security" - 27 October 2011 ↓expand↓

Preventing the development and use of biological weapons requires a multilayered approach, to tackle a complex situation characterized by the dual-use dilemma. The Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BWTC) remains the cornerstone of the prohibition regime, while other instruments or mechanisms contribute to reinforce it. A bottom-up initiative such as biosafey and biosecurity can have added value, if measures can be efficiently implemented and compliance monitored.

Biosafety and biosecurity fall under the scope of the article IV of the BTWC, which stipulates that Member States have to take “any necessary measures” to prohibit and prevention the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, encompassing according to the Final Declaration of the Sixth Review Conference legislative, administrative, judicial and other measures, including penal legislation. The Resolution 1540 (2004) and the International health Regulations (2005) also require to consider and adopt biosafety and biosecurity regulations and practices. As underlines Peter Clevestig, one problem is that various definitions of biosecurity coexist. Considering that biosecurity aims at preventing unauthorized access, theft, misuse, diversion or intentional release of agents and toxins (according to WHO Biorisk management: Laboratory Biosecurity Guidance, 2006), it will mostly reduce threats from subnational actors, be they lone scientists or terrorist groups. A broader approach, dealing with dual-use research, includes as well techniques and technologies which could be diverted. In this regard, biosecurity can also be considered as playing a role against state proliferation, as knowledge, expertise, and training relevant to biological programmes can, for example, be acquired through university studies or research exchanges.

Some trends justify further a focus on both biosafety and biosecurity. There is a growing convergence and interconnection between public health and security issues. Scientific and technical advances in life sciences, for example in the field of systems and synthetic biology, are cause for concerns. (Re-)emerging diseases outbreaks, with fears of pandemics, as well as bioterrorism threats have led to the development of research programmes and the building of new high-containment infrastructures. Examples of reported safety breaches and laboratory acquired infections around the world show that, even when regulations and procedures exist, compliance may not be adequate. And if biosafety is less than satisfactory, biosecurity is then also a problem. Besides, evolution of the worldwide repartition in the pharmaceutical and biotechnological sector associated to the strengthening of public health systems through new laboratories have resulted in an increasing number of plants located in countries with safety regulatory framework less developed. In addition, in many countries, biosecurity is not a top priority when requirements and allocation of resources are considered. At present, few countries have adopted specific biosecurity regulations.

Security cannot be dissociated from safety. To address biorisks implies to consider the full spectrum of biological threats, from natural ones to intentional ones. Safety and security must be integrated in a global assessment and management plan, as relevant measures often reinforce themselves mutually. However, due to different aims, conflicting effects can also result if these issues are not jointly addressed. Moreover, if improving health and environmental protection is viewed as important and positive, security matters may spark more reluctance in the scientific community.

Implementing security measures at the laboratory level indeed implies to engage scientists and laboratory workers, even, or especially, those traditionally not used to dealing with such issues. This involves a long-term process and it must rely on the development of culture of security and responsibility. Addressing these issues during the intersessional process, among other topics, has for example contributed to outreach towards actors traditionally not involved in the BTWC process, especially actors from the scientific community. Safety and security should be linked not only for coherence but also because it is probably easier to catch attention of laboratory workers with safety education and training, and then go further. Raising awareness among scientists is crucial, the first step to gain their support. And devising means - including incident reporting and compliance monitoring - ensuring that security precautions “become a routine part of laboratory work” (WHO Laboratory Biosafety Manual, 2004) remains a challenge.


Comments on this discussion are welcome at clevestig[at]

    Peter Clevestig

    Dr. Peter Clevestig is programme director for the Global Health & Security Programme and senior researcher for the Chemical and Biological Security Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). Peter Clevestig is a trained virologist specializing on laboratory biosecurity and biorisk management with extensive experience in both policies and procedures. Additional areas of expertise and interests include the dual-uses of the life sciences, bioterrorism and biological warfare, infectious disease surveillance and response mechanisms, and security implications of emerging biotechnologies.

    Kirk C. Bansak

    Kirk C. Bansak is a graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is specializing in international security studies and Asia Pacific regional studies. Prior to that, he worked as a Research Associate at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where he focused on chemical and biological weapons nonproliferation issues. Recent works of his works have been published by the Nonproliferation Review, Arms Control Today, and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He received his BA from Harvard University in 2009.

    Sudoyo Herawati


    Dr. Elisande Nexon

    Dr. Elisande Nexon has been a Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique since 2005. She teaches in the Geopolitics & Geostrategic module of the Masters in “CBRN Health risks”, organized by the Val-de-Grâce School of Military Medicine, in partnership with the Pierre & Marie Curie University (UPMC) and the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA). She also lectures about chemical and biological proliferation and arms control in the Master of International Security from Sciences Po Paris.