Pałac StaszicaThis week scientists, government and security experts from 30 countries around the world are meeting in Warsaw, Poland, to discuss cutting-edge science and technology with a potential impact for biosecurity. This is part of a project I am chairing, involving IAP – the global network of science academies, the Royal Society, the US National Academies of Sciences (NAS) and the Polish Academy of Sciences to conduct an independent review of recent scientific and technological developments that have implications for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC).

What is the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention?

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of an entire category of weapons of mass destruction. It came into force in 1975 to address biological and toxin weapons – it supplements the 1925 Geneva Protocol which prohibits the use but not possession or development of chemical and biological weapons. Since then and every five years, there is a Review Conference which brings together all of the State Parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention to discuss how it is being implemented and upheld, including scientific and technological developments and their implications.

Why is it important to conduct a review of scientific and technological developments?

While the occurrence of malevolent uses of biological organisms or toxins has been historically low, the scientific landscape changes quickly. Existing scientific techniques become cheaper and easier to use, while new scientific techniques present new opportunities and possible risks. For instance, this year gene editing has raised a lot of ethical concerns, including the potential biosecurity risks it poses – discussions are underway to assess what should be done to prevent misuses of such techniques.

On the other hand, science and technology can also have a significant positive impact for the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, including for the response to epidemics and possible bioweapon attacks, or to investigate alleged breaches to the Convention. Such activities can be similar to investigations regarding chemical weapons, such as the one currently being led in Syria by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

So how does the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention keep up with scientific progress?

Initially quinquennial BTWC Review Conferences involving government technical experts and scientists were sufficient but since the Fifth Review Conference in 2001, following 9/11 and the anthrax scare, the Convention has had yearly Meetings of Experts and Meetings of the State Parties to lead up to the Review conferences. One of the functions of the Meetings of Experts is to review mechanisms and capabilities to handle security threats. In addition, following the 2006 Sixth Review Conference a BTWC Implementation Support Unit (ISU) was created. Since 2007, the ISU has provided the Meetings of Experts with background documents reviewing progress in science and technology, put together by local experts, using scientific literature and input from international organisations.

While this support has been essential, global scientific output doubles every nine years and it is challenging for the ISU alone to keep up with all advances in every single field of science.

Over the last nine years, academies of sciences around the world, led by the US National Academies of Sciences and the Royal Society, have also provided an additional independent review of scientific and technological developments. Using their networks and convening power, science academies have gathered international scientific and policy experts to pinpoint game-changing advances and discuss how they might impact security.

In 2010, the US National Academies of Sciences, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and IAP organized such a meeting and reported three broad trends in the science and technology affecting the Convention – the increasing pace of science and technology development, the diffusion of research and capacity, and the convergence of science and technology in particular between Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention and Chemical Weapons Convention.

One of the key questions raised at that meeting was how to adopt a more systematic process to monitor and assess developments in science and technology. This is something that will be considered at our S&T Trends Symposium this week in Warsaw.  As recent events have shown there are groups who are willing to contravene the Geneva Protocol so these discussions are important to make sure that countries are empowered to uphold the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention supported by insights from science and technology.

With the 8th Review Conference in December 2016, discussions are already starting to identify the important issues. We look forward to feeding our findings about developments in science and technology into the Meeting of State Parties in December 2015 to support these discussions.