Last year in Geneva, there was a global conference to review the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) banning biological and toxin weapons, which has been ratified by 165 states.  The treaty is directed as preventing rogue countries and terrorist groups from developing or using biological weapons.

One of the main speakers was US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who failed to mention the threat of illegal government stockpiles.  Instead, she said, “Unfortunately the ability of terrorists and other non-state actors to develop and use these weapons is growing. Therefore this must be a renewed focus of our efforts.  She said Al Qaeda had urged “brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry … to develop a weapon of mass destruction.”  Clinton worried that terrorists could put together a weapon using widely-available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology.

The consequences of bio-terror attack are too terrible to entertain.  Directed largely at civilians, such attacks can kill and incapacitate thousands.  And there are no defences, other than preventing terrorists from getting their hands on biological weapons in the first place.  This was the reason the BWC was written.  But on closer inspection, experts found that the treaty was riddled with loopholes, making the BWC ineffective.

A little background first.  The Convention was signed in 1972 and came into force in 1975, with strong support from countries around the world.  The treaty bans the development, testing, production, storage, and use of germ weapons.  It was a landmark treaty that, for the first time, addressed weapons of mass destruction.

Unfortunately, the BWC could easily be circumvented, and probably had been by Iraq, which had stockpiled biological agents during the 1970s and 1980s.  There are also strong suspicions that the USSR/Russia, Egypt, and the US have been secretly manufacturing, testing, and stockpiling biological agents in contravention of the treaty.

The problem was that the treaty did nothing to detect illegal manufactures of weapons that used legitimate laboratories as a front.  In 1992, an amendment to the BWC was suggested to close this loophole by allowing for random and surprise inspections.

Based mainly in the US, Europe, and Japan, the major pharmaceutical and biotech firms objected, and their industry associations mobilized opposition to the treaty.  EuropaBio, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, Japan Bioindustry Association, and the Association of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) in the US urged their respective governments to reject most of the changes.  Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) coordinated the opposition, as well as lobbying governments in its own right. EuropaBio criticized site inspections and removal of samples, which it alleged could threaten commercial confidentiality. PhRMA warned that it opposed “any protocol that does not fully protect confidential business information.”  It feared that trade secrets could be stolen through industrial espionage.  The Japan Bioindustry Association called for a balance “between the cost of anti-terrorist attack measures and freedom required for research and development.” Put simply, they were all scared that an inspector could steal plans for new drugs or other trade secrets.

Getting together, the pharmaceutical companies tried to sell an alternative to surprise inspections.  In a Joint Position paper they wrote:

Our industries support the concept of non-routine, non-random “familiarization” visits, provided they are voluntary and under the full control of the company visited.

They asked for was ample warning before an inspection and the power to tell inspectors where they could and couldn’t go.  As a solution, it was ludicrous.

So weak was industry’s position that independent government experts in Europe and Japan quickly dismissed it.  On the other hand, the US government, which had long been in the pocket of pharmaceutical corporations, supported industry’s position.

On November 19, 2001, the US Undersecretary of State John Bolton declared the BWC “dead, and is not going to be resurrected,” and, parroting the line taken by the drug companies, claimed that it would “facilitate industrial espionage.”  Ironically, the US did not stand quite alone.  A neat axis of support formed, with Russia, Iran, and Iraq joining the US to scuttle the treaty.

So while Clinton was publicly championing the treaty and a way to prevent terrorists from getting their hands on biological weapons, the previous administration had done everything it could to weaken the treaty. What hypocrisy!

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