Three months after our Trends Symposium in Warsaw (convened by the Royal Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, the Polish Academy of Sciences, and IAP – the global network of science academies), I was at the UN in Geneva this week to launch our review of recent scientific and technological advances that impact the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC).
Our review reached four main conclusions:
- Biosciences are advancing at an unprecedented rate
- Recent advances can facilitate the development of biological weapons
- The BWC must continue to monitor scientific and technological developments
- The global ability to detect and treat disease has been enhanced
To present these findings, the Royal Society and IAP organised a side-event at the BWC Meeting of States Parties where diplomats had the opportunity to quiz a panel of scientists (including myself!) involved in the work.
Biological engineering and low-cost production methods contribute to the accelerated pace of discovery in the biosciences
Professor Paul Freemont, from Imperial College London, gave a presentation on trends in synthetic biology and answered the audience’s queries about how they might impact the BWC. His presentation provided a tangible illustration that the fundamental character of biosciences is changing, with more emphasis on rational design, biological engineering and simplified low-cost production platforms. More generally, this evidenced the first finding of the Trends Symposium in Warsaw: biosciences are advancing at an unprecedented rate and this has both positive and negative implications for the BWC.
Of note, the conference report outlines other trends that have contributed to an acceleration in the pace of discovery, such as an ever-increasing diffusion of knowledge and interconnection between labs and technological hubs.
Recent advances can facilitate the development of biological weapons
The Trends Symposium in Warsaw also noted that recent advances could facilitate almost every step of a biological weapons programme, and Paul Freemont’s talk showed that it is now easier to synthetize novel agents for a number of reasons, such as the lowered cost of DNA synthesis. Likewise, simplified, low-cost production platforms mean that producing biological agents does not require consequent amounts of time nor large facilities anymore.
At present most of these advances are only possible in well-funded and sophisticated laboratories but this will change. This emphasizes a need for a continual review of scientific progress.
The BWC must continue to monitor scientific and technological developments
The science academies’ Symposium highlighted that the BWC must continue to monitor scientific and technological advances. We recommend the development of a suitably resourced and dynamic mechanism to formulate appropriate questions to answer and identify current scientific and technical capabilities applicable to the problem. The development of an approach for systematically assessing risk would greatly assist this process. Asked about how regularly scientific progress should be reviewed, Professor Freemont advised that this ought to be done at least annually.
This recommendation for a more systematic review mechanism echoed the statements from a number of delegations during a plenary session on the ‘Review of developments in the field of science and technology related to the Convention’, which preceded our side-event. However, there was no consensus on what form such a review mechanism should take. The Swiss delegation observed that other international processes present different examples of how to review developments in science and technology, and this could be a basis for discussion for the BWC’s States Parties.
Microbial forensics could enable rapid fingerprinting of pathogenic agents
In their statements, multiple delegations also talked about the enormous potential benefits of scientific progress. For instance, Professor Alemka Markotic, head of the Department for Research at the University Hospital for Infectious Diseases (UHID) in Zagreb, Croatia, told diplomats about microbial forensics, a relatively new scientific discipline used to analyze possible bioterrorism attacks, or the inadvertent release of microorganisms or toxins. Together with sophisticated central data sharing and processing, the advancement of microbial forensic techniques could enable the rapid identification of pathogens.
By and large, both naturally-occurring outbreaks as well as those caused by malevolent actions can now be detected and combated more effectively. This – despite an initially slow international response – was for example apparent in the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa.
Summary and next steps
The unprecedented rate of scientific and technological development presents both huge potential benefits and substantial challenges. A number of delegates pointed to the fact that, in the face of pressing threats and challenges, the world cannot afford to impede the pace of scientific progress, nor can it just let it happen and hope for the best.
The States Parties will next meet in spring 2016 for the Preparatory Conference, ahead of the Eighth Review Conference scheduled for late 2016. This could be an opportunity to create an effective science and technology review mechanism for the BWC.
An executive summary and a non-technical report of the IAP review of science and technology that impact the BWC can be downloaded from our website. This work was informed by an extensive review of scientific and technological developments that occurred since the seventh Review Conference, compiled in a technical report also available for download.