[Cross-posted from The Trench]
The final report of the 7th Review Conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) held in December 2011 contained a one-line subparagraph whose ambition came to fruition in December 2019. Under Article IV (on national implementation measures), paragraph 13 opened as follows:
The Conference notes the value of national implementation measures, as appropriate, in accordance with the constitutional process of each State Party, to:
(a) implement voluntary management standards on biosafety and biosecurity;
That single line of new language in the final report was the outcome of a preparatory process that had begun in September 2009 and led to a Belgian Review Conference working paper endorsed by the European Union (EU). Prompted by the final report’s language, the International Organisation for Standards (ISO) initiated the complex procedure for developing a new standard. Just over seven years after the 7th Review Conference, it published the new standard, ISO 35001:2019 Biorisk management for laboratories and other related organisations.
Today, amid the global pandemic caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), questions about the virus’s origins abound. Might it have escaped from a high-containment laboratory? Did the epidemic result from a deliberate release? While we can source most of these claims to conspiracy theorists and wilful disinformation propagators, the clampdown of Chinese bureaucracy on early outbreak reports, the government’s failure to immediately report the emerging epidemic to the World Health Organisation (WHO), and its subsequent extreme vetting of any scientific publication discussing COVID-19’s origins created the space for the wildest stories to flourish.
Over the next months and years researchers from many disciplines will analyse the response by the WHO and the adequacy of the outbreak reporting requirements under the International Health Regulations. Even though nothing suggests that COVID-19 resulted from a deliberate release of a pathogen or that the virus was artificially created or genetically altered in a laboratory, different aspects of the BTWC regime relate to the reporting of outbreaks, biosecurity and -safety in laboratories and other installations, and international cooperation.
Interesting in this respect is whether the new ISO standard offers opportunities to reinforce the BTWC. In preparation for the 2020 BTWC Meetings of Experts (MX), to be held exceptionally in December instead of the late summer due to COVID-19 meeting restrictions at the United Nations, Belgium with Austria. Chile, France, Germany, Iraq, Ireland, Netherlands, Spain and Thailand submitted a working paper entitled ‘Biorisk management standards and their role in BTWC implementation’ (BWC/MSP/2020/MX.2/WP.2, 27 October2020).
Early genesis of a small success
September 2009. I was a disarmament researcher at the Paris-based European Union Institute for Security Studies (EU-ISS). The 7th BTWC Review Conference was just over two years away. I met with an acquaintance from my days at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) and a senior official at the Foreign Ministry in Brussels. I had a straightforward question for them. Belgium would hold the 6-monthly rotating Presidency of the European Council during the second half of 2010. A year before the Review Conference, this was the ideal time to update the EU Common Position for the quinquennial meeting.
Holding the Presidency offers plenty of opportunities for initiative. In 2009 EU members had no specific plans to update their common position. The 6th Review Conference they considered a success (which was relative considering the disaster five years earlier). Three months after the meeting in Brussels, the Belgian Foreign Ministry decided to seek an updated EU position. Preparations already began under the Swedish Presidency during the first half of 2010.
The idea I had put forward in Brussels was maximalist: how to equip the BTWC with verification tools? I was not seeking to reopen the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) negotiations the United States had aborted in 2001 because by the turn of the century I had already come to the conclusion that the tools under consideration in Geneva addressed past problems and not the most recent developments in biology and biotechnology. Many academics observing the AHG deliberations recognised the shortcomings of the draft text but pushed for completing the draft protocol to the BTWC, fearing that the proceedings were losing momentum. However, their argument that the protocol could be amended afterwards I did not share. In my mind, a return to the design board was the only option.
On the way to a national and common EU position
On 18 May 2010, during the Swedish Presidency, the EU Council’s Working Party on Global Disarmament and Arms Control (CODUN) invited me to present my thoughts on how to strengthen the BTWC. CODUN coordinated the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy regarding global disarmament and UN-related issues, which included the BTWC. (CODUN has since then been absorbed into the Working Party on Non-proliferation – CONOP.) In the EU-ISS note prepared for the briefing I identified five areas of possible progress on verification-related questions: (1) industry verification; (2) biodefence programmes; (3) technology transfers; (4) allegations of BW use and unusual outbreaks of disease; and (5) countering BW threats posed by terrorist and criminal entities. I added the following caveat:
Under the present circumstances it does not appear feasible to consider the five areas in a single, holistic model for a future BTWC. New, non-state actors have risen to prominence in the disarmament debate (the industry, scientific and professional communities, but also terrorist and criminal entities). There are different challenges posed by rapid advances in science, technology and processes that may contribute to BW acquisition, the major changes in the international security environment over the past three decades (and since the 9/11 attacks and the invasion of Iraq in particular) and the resulting changes in security expectations from weapon control treaties and their verification tools.
The main aim for the EU, I suggested, was to
obtain a decision at the 7th Review Conference establishing one or more working groups to explore and identify novel approaches to verifying the BTWC. These working groups are to meet several times during the next intersessional period and report to the 8th Review Conference in 2016, at which point States Parties may decide to act on the findings.
Critical elements in the deliberations will be: (1) the building and application of the principle of multi-stakeholdership, with direct participation of the industrial and scientific communities; (2) the identification of processes and technologies to support the verification goals, and, where required, to identify such processes and technologies that need to be created and developed based on the latest scientific and technological advances, e.g., in detection or biological forensics; and (3) for the EU, to actively support the process by taking the lead in testing the proposed verification methodologies in realistic settings with a view of both ascertaining their feasibleness and finetuning the proposals.
The latter element was critical for deliberations to move from the conceptual to the practical. In a footnote, I clarified:
This aspect is particularly important with respect to the design and implementation of novel verification principles, techniques and technologies. For example, before the signing of the 1987 Treaty on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) the United States and the Soviet Union had conducted over 400 trial inspections. The goals of those trials included the testing of the concept of onsite inspection, the finetuning of verification requirements and the investigation of ways in which sensitive information could be protected without undermining the stated verification goals.
The remainder of the note addressed the five issue areas. The document ended with a separate section on stakeholders and their involvement in verification, which included arguments to have industry and the scientific communities engaged in the preparatory processes.
Sharpening the focusRead the rest of this entry »
This year the UN General Assembly (UNGA) celebrates the 75th time in session. However, the worldwide spread of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) casts dark shadow over the anniversary with some of the major global players preferring to play geopolitics when nations should unite to combat a germ that knows no borders.
Unsurprisingly, many heads of state or government, ministers and other dignitaries have reflected in their statements on the pandemic and the challenges ahead. Some introduced constructive suggestions to address the factors that led to the outbreak at the end of last year. Others put forward ideas to strengthen crisis response and management capacities.
Among these, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in his address on 23 September launched the surprising proposal to
‘establish a special multilateral body – the International Agency for Biological Safety – based on the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention and accountable to the UN Security Council’.
His reference to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in the broader context of public health is noteworthy. It was one of five ideas to combat the pandemic, the other four being the upgrading of national health institutions; the removal of politics out of the vaccine; the revision of the International Health Regulations to increase capacities of the World Health Organisation (WHO); and the examination of the idea of a network of Regional Centres for Disease Control and Biosafety under the UN auspices.
Given the many accusations that the virus is human-made, escaped from a laboratory or was part of a biological weapon (BW) programme and the ease with which disinformation circulates through the social media, an initiative that relies on the BTWC makes sense. After all, the convention deals with questions of non-compliance or accusations of biological warfare.
What does the proposal entail?
No further details about the International Agency for Biological Safety (IABS) are available from Kazakh missions. This leaves us with few clues about its purpose, structure and way of functioning.
- As an ‘agency’, the IABS would presumably be department or administrative unit of a bigger entity. Because it would be accountable to the UN Security Council (UNSC) Kazakhstan probably envisages it as a UN subsidiary body. In one sense, the organ could be a relatively autonomous structure (e.g. under a Commissioner-General) set up by the UNGA. However, the sole reference to the UNSC appears at odds with a UNGA subsidiary body.
- However, the characterisation of the body as ‘multilateral’ indicates that states – whether parties to the BTWC or UN members is unspecified – might govern the agency rather than a bureaucratic entity such as the UN. In this understanding, the reference might be to a UN specialised agency (an autonomous organisation integrated by agreement into the UN system, e.g. the WHO) or a related organisation that by agreement reports to the UNGA and UNSC, similar to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. This interpretation, however, does not sit well with ‘ accountability’ to the UNSC and lack of reference to the UNGA.
- The organ is about biological safety, therefore presumably about handling dangerous pathogens. If the Kazakh language does not differentiate between ‘biosafety’ and ‘biosecurity’ (Google Translate renders both terms as ‘биоқауіпсіздік’ [bïoqawipsizdik]), then preventing pathogens from escaping high-containment facilities may also fall within the agency’s purview.
- Finally, the BTWC reference suggests that the agency would address questions not usually within the remit of the WHO, i.e. research and development that may lead to BW or biodefence programmes.
How about the IABS in the BTWC context?
According to the Kazakh proposal the IABS should be based on the BTWC. The preposition ‘on’ could mean that the scope of its mandate equals that of the disarmament treaty or that it should work supporting BTWC objectives.
As is well known, the BTWC has no formal institutional setup in which the body might be integrated. Yet is it too wild an idea to link it to the Implementation Support Unit (ISU)? Even while ownership of the treaty lies with the states parties, they have embedded the ISU within the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs (UNODA). In that option, the IABS might meet the twin criteria of being an agency and multilateral put forward by Kazakhstan.
However, the ISU is not a formal administrative entity within UNODA or the UN. Its continued existence depends on the BTWC states parties, who must renew its mandate and adopt a budget for the next five years at review conferences. For the IABS they would thus also have to decide on staffing levels and a budget based on a pre-agreed mandate. Similar types of consideration await proposals to establish a scientific advisory body for the BTWC. Therefore, for the IABS an additional key decision will be whether it becomes part of the ISU or functions separately within UNODA.
How could IABS support the BTWC objectives?
There is little purpose in debating possible structures without a sense of possible IABS roles. The IABS may conceivably support the BTWC objectives in two areas, namely regarding confidence building measures (CBMs) and Article VII on emergency assistance.
Enhancement of CBM utility
Because of the presentation of the proposal in the context of the pandemic, the IABS could focus on CBM B ‘Exchange of information on outbreaks of infectious diseases and similar occurrences caused by toxins’.
CBMs are submitted annually with a formal deadline on 15 April. Consequently, outbreaks cover the past year, and the process does not inform states parties at when the incident occurs. Moreover, the process is passive. States parties receive the information in at least one of the six official UN languages but many lack the resources to translate the documents or the capacity to analyse them in depth.
A process can be envisaged whereby states parties submit to the IABS when possible details of a unusual disease outbreaks with additional information as to whether this unusual outbreak is natural, accidental or believed to be deliberate. A state party could conceivably notify the agency of any outbreak about which it has information. The IABS processes this information and provides it to all states parties within the shortest possible delays. Any state party can follow up through bilateral consultations or may offer specific types of assistance to address the outbreak. Another advantage of such a process would be the early squashing of conspiracy theories.
One could envisage that the IABS also acts as an interface for CBM A, Parts 1 and 2, respectively on ‘Exchange of data on research centres and laboratories’ and ‘Exchange of information on national biological defence research and development programmes’. As noted earlier, biosafety and -security would be at the heart of the agency.
In this way, a passive CBM process could be elevated to an active assurance strategy whereby states parties commit themselves to be transparent about unusual disease outbreaks. Failure to report or late reporting of such an outbreak or accident could give other states parties cause to seek clarification, more so as it not usually possible to hide such an event.
While cooperation with the WHO and other international health organisations for human, animal and plant diseases would most likely emerge, the principal focus of the IABS would be defined by the BTWC: prevention of BWs and their use.
Focal point for Article VII
In view of the possible roles outlined above, it seems a natural next step to envisage the IABS as a focal point for requesting emergency assistance under Article VII if a state party has been exposed to a danger because of a violation of the BTWC.
There is no procedure foreseen for a state wishing to invoke the provision. Tabletop exercises run between 2016 and 2019 have shown that participants hesitate to activate the article. Such a step automatically implies a violation of the BTWC and may escalate a conflict. Furthermore, there are questions about what type of evidence the requesting state party must supply and the role of the other states parties in the process given the involvement of the UNSC. In addition, the outbreak will be noted a while before first suspicions of deliberate intent arise.
As the IABS would have been informed of the outbreak early on, a state party believing it has been exposed to a danger resulting from a breach of the BTWC could submit its evidence for further consideration. Clarification processes may alleviate concerns or give cause to forward the matter to the UNSC. In any case, having an agency such as the IABS would hand states parties a tool and an opportunity to be seized by the matter without having to set up a lengthy preparatory process for consultations under BTWC Article V.
For sure, some further elaboration of the IABS idea by the Kazakh government would be great, e.g. in a working paper for the BTWC meeting of experts in December (having been postponed as a consequences of the pandemic) or the review conference next year.
Kazakhstan should also clarify its understanding of the phrase ‘accountable to the UN Security Council’. In several articles the BTWC refers to roles to be played by the UNSC. However, these are often seen as an impediment to activating the relevant provision because decisions or actions by the UNSC are unpredictable in their outcome.
Notwithstanding, the Kazakh proposal already tantalises as it is. As an agency it might fulfil useful tasks at relatively small cost in areas of concern to states parties. The discussion, if not accusations about the origins of SARS-CoV-2 show that something substantive is lacking in the international security machinery to generate transparency and confidence in the accuracy of information.
Looking forward to more ideas and discussions.
[Cross-posted from The Trench]
On 20 August, the Russian anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny fell ill during a return flight to Moscow and was hospitalised in the Siberian town of Omsk after an emergency landing. Members of his travelling party immediately suspected poisoning, an impression hospital staff reinforced when they refused Navalny’s personal physician access to his medical records.
Following his airlifting to Berlin for further examination and specialist treatment, the Charité hospital issued a statement on 24 August that preliminary findings indicated exposure to ‘a substance from the group of cholinesterase inhibitors’. Even though the hospital could then not name the specific poison used, it added that multiple tests by independent laboratories had confirmed the effect of the poison. The hospital was also treating him with the antidote atropine. The references to a cholinesterase inhibitor and atropine were the first strong indicators of a neurotoxicant, to which nerve agents like sarin, VX or the novichoks belong.
A week later, on 2 September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed the assassination attempt with a novichok agent at a press conference. She drew on the conclusions from biomedical analyses by the Institut für Pharmakologie und Toxikologie der Bundeswehr (Bundeswehr Institute of Pharmacology and Toxicology), one of the top laboratories designated by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate biomedical samples.
From natural poisons to warfare agents
Poisoning political opponents or enemies is not new. In his almost 600 pages-long ‘Die Gifte in der Weltgeschichte’ (1920) the German pharmacologist Louis Lewin detailed chapter after chapter how besides criminals and spurned lovers, rulers, leaders, undercover agents and conspirators applied the most noxious substances in pursuing domestic political or international geopolitical objectives. Reviews of chemical and biological weapons (CBW) usage through the 20th century similarly list successful and attempted assassinations with mineral poisons or animal and plant toxins in and outside of war.
Modern chemical weapons (CW) – typically human-made toxic compounds standardised for use on battlefields – have rarely been selected to target individuals. Observers and journalists reported first use of nerve agents by Iraq against Iran in 1983, almost five decades after their initial discovery in Nazi Germany. In March 1995 the world learned of Aum Shinrikyo after its members had released the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo underground. However, during the previous eight months the extremist cult had also resorted to both sarin and VX in attempts to assassinate judges about to rule against Aum Shinrikyo and individuals who posed a threat or had defected from the religious group. These were the first and for more than a decade and a half the only reports of neurotoxicants used to murder individuals.
The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) eliminated Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, with a binary form of VX in February 2017. Just over a year later, in March 2018, Russian operatives attempted to murder a former double agent Sergei Skripal in Salisbury, UK with a nerve agent belonging to the lesser known family of so-called ‘novichoks’ (newcomer). Skripal’s daughter and a police officer were also exposed to the toxicant. They too survived. In June two British citizens fell ill in the nearby town of Amesbury because of exposure to the agent in a small bottle discarded by the Russian agents. One exposed person succumbed.
Following the Skripal case the Bulgarian Prosecutor General reopened a poisoning case in October 2018 at the request of the victim, arms manufacturer and trader Emilian Gebrev. The assassination attempt dated to April 2015. Also exposed were his son and the production manager of the Dunarit munitions factory. The Prosecutor General confirmed that a Russian operative linked to the Skripal attempt had visited Bulgaria at the time of the incident. Subsequent forensic analysis of serum and urine samples from Gebrev by the Finnish laboratory VERIFIN confirmed the poisoning. According to the UK-based CW expert Dan Kaszeta, who read a copy of the report, the Finnish institute intimated that Gebrev might have been exposed to an organophosphate pesticide. A Bulgarian news outlet has suggested the agricultural insecticide Amiton (also known as Tetram). Now commercially banned because of its high toxicity, in the 1950s the UK investigated its use as a nerve agent under the code VG.
Some reports have also claimed that Aum Shinrikyo murdered around 20 dissident members and defectors with VX in one of the cult’s compounds. To the best of my knowledge no documentary evidence to support the claim has been published.
Previous assassination operations involving nerve agents
Nerve agents were battlefield weapons, mostly liquids of different viscosity. The volatile sarin could prepare the pathway of an attack, whereas the oilier tabun and VX had their greatest utility as area denial weapons for defending terrain or protecting flanks during an advance. Their manufacture in large volumes is complex and maintaining their stability during longer-term storage is a hurdle that even few states have satisfactorily crossed. In laboratory volumes, a skilled chemist may be able to synthesise agent of high purity. But this person would have to take the greatest precautions to avoid inadvertent exposure to its noxious properties. While the relatively high toxicity of nerve agents may appear attractive to terrorists or assassins, the marginal benefit they offer over other terrorist or criminal tools is usually too small to make the investments or risks worthwhile. Hence, their use by terrorists or criminals has been rare.
Until recently, their use in assassination operations would have been considered even rarer, especially because of the poor results obtained by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the first half of the 1990s.
The following table summarises known assassination operations with neurotoxicants.
|27 June 1994||Aum Shinrikyo||Sarin released in Matsumoto from a converted lorry to kill three judges who were to rule in a land dispute. They survived. However, the drifting sarin cloud eventually killed eight persons and injured over 500.|
|Autumn 1994||Aum Shinrikyo||Suspected VX attack against Taro Takimoto, lawyer for Aum victims. The agent had been applied on the handle of his car door. Failed, reasons unknown|
|Autumn 1994||Aum Shinrikyo||Second suspected VX attack against Taro Takimoto. The agent had been inserted into a keyhole. Failed, reasons unknown. (Aum reportedly also attempted to murder this person with botulinum toxin around this time.)|
|28 November 1994||Aum Shinrikyo||VX squirted from a syringe onto Noboru Mizonu in retaliation for offering shelter to former Aum members. Failed.|
|2 December 1994||Aum Shinrikyo||Second attack on Noboru Mizonu with VX delivered drop by drop from a syringe. Hospitalisation for 45 days required.|
|12 December 1994||Aum Shinrikyo||VX injected with a syringe into Tadahito Hamaguchi in Osaka, having been misidentified as a police spy. First person ever to have been deliberately killed with VX.|
|4 January 1995||Aum Shinrikyo||VX syringe attack against the head of the Aum Victims Society, Hiroyuki Nagaoka. Hospitalised for several weeks.|
|28 April 2015||Russia||Bulgarian arms trader Emilian Gebrev poisoned with an organophosphorus compound. Two other persons present also suffered consequences. Following the Skripal case in March 2018, a possible link to novichok has been suggested but not confirmed. Bulgaria charged three Russian operatives with attempted murder in January 2020, one of whom is also a suspect in the Skripal case.|
|13 February 2017||DPRK||Attack with binary VX on Kim Jong-nam, half-brother of Kim Jong-un, DPRK leader, at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Malaysia. Killed.|
|4 March 2018||Russia||Assassination attempt with a novichok agent, presumed to be A-234, on former Soviet/Russian intelligence officer, Sergei Skripal, in Salisbury, UK. His daughter Yulia was also exposed to the neurotoxicant, which Russian operatives had applied to the door handle of Skripal’s home. Detective Sergeant Nick Bailey too suffered effects from exposure. All three persons recovered after multiple weeks in hospital.|
|30 June 2018||Russia||Charlie Rowley and Dawn Sturgess were hospitalised in the nearby town of Amesbury following inadvertent exposure to novichok after having recovered a vial discarded by the Russian operatives. Sturgess died on 8 July; Rowley recovered after hospitalisation.|
|20 August 2020||Russia||Assassination attempt on Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny with a novichok agent, presumed in powdered form, at Tomsk airport, Russia. Still hospitalised in Berlin at the time of writing.|
|[Sources: Anthony T. Tu, The use of VX as a terrorist agent (2020); Monterey Institute of International Studies, Chronology of Aum Shinrikyo’s CBW Activities (2001); and assorted press reports.]|
There have been 12 incidents with neurotoxicants. Eleven persons were the direct target, of whom two died.
Around 520–530 other individuals in total suffered exposure to the poisonous substances. Nine among them died. Aum Shinrikyo’s sarin cloud attack against the judges’ dormitory in Matsumoto caused almost all collateral casualties.
Six persons other than the immediate targets fell victim to Russian operatives, one of whom succumbed to the poisoning.
Only in one listed operation (Gebrev) remains the use of a military type of nerve agent unconfirmed.
[Cross-posted from www.the-trench.org]
Book review: Debora MacKenzie, COVID-19: The Pandemic That Never Should Have Happened and How to Stop the Next One (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), 279p.
The book opens with the quote from a poster seen at the first March for Science on 22 April 2017: “Every disaster movie starts with someone ignoring a scientist”. My immediate thought: well, scientists may be clever, but they just cannot express their thoughts in a register that politicians and opinion shapers might understand. Another reflection replaced it instantaneously, this time on politicians: they are so ideological that if their teachings tell them to view everything through a square, then they will only see squares. Try to square a circle if the opposition solely looks at the world through circles. Compromise, if possible, may take policies forward, but maybe not in directions that raise resilience to catastrophes.
Debora MacKenzie is a scientist and a journalist for the New Scientist and other science publications since – to the best of my knowledge – the early 1980s. She is also an engaged writer with a knack for making complex things understandable to a broad audience. And her deep knowledge reaches far wider than the mere ‘science’ of things or processes. This makes COVID-19 so engaging. The book project may have started early in the spring; the contents draw on her many years of probing experts in many disciplines.
She has been onto the potential of epidemics and pandemics since the start of the century. The Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) crisis that began in China in 2002 and hit her country of origin, Canada, badly is seared in her memory. She wondered whether an outbreak on the scale of ‘svarta döden’ (as the Swedes began calling the Great Pestilence of the mid-1300s in the 15th century) might recur; whether mortality might reach somewhere between 33% and 50% again; and what social, economic, and political factors contributed to the pandemic’s severity. Similar questions guide her investigation into COVID-19. Unsurprisingly, the narrative takes us back many years, even decades before the new coronavirus infected people in China. That story differs greatly from those politicians, experts, opinion shapers and other pundits like to feed us.
The perfect storm
In his book ‘The Perfect Storm’ Sebastian Junger recreates the final moments of a fishing boat out into the Atlantic Ocean when a massive cyclone hit the US east coast over the Halloween period in 1991. To many the title means a rare, unfolding event during which separate developments conspire to produce an aggravated outcome. Well, not quite. In the book, each contributing circumstance had been predicted or foretold, but the protagonists failed to act upon the warnings. In this sense, COVID-19 describes how many policy options, economic strategies, and social preferences over the past 3-4 decades made the preconditions for a perfect storm.
A first contributing element was a growing conviction in the 1960s that humanity had by and large vanquished disease. Technological and social optimism accompanied the view: vaccines were to defeat infections and prosperity contributed to the overall decline in disease. The formal declaration by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in May 1980 that the global immunisation programme had rid the smallpox scourge capped that optimism. The disposition, however, spawned two other trends whose impact greatly contributed to the difficulties in containing major epidemics in the 21st century.
Governments, especially in the more affluent societies, disinvested in public health. Internationally they reduced surveillance stations to detect outbreaks early or new sources of infection. The process also coincided with decolonisation, due to which surveillance outposts in spaces where new diseases often originate no longer provided advance warning of emerging health threats. From the early 1980s onwards, fiscal frugality to reduce national budget deficits combined with supply-side economics in industrialised countries eventually resulted in imposing budgetary constraints on international organisations like the WHO. This too affected surveillance and response capacities. Domestically, the same trends led into significant reductions of investments in health as a public good and the broad privatisation of health care. Governments likewise no longer saw value in maintaining development and stockpiling in drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics, leaving research and production decisions in the hands of private sector interests. Those governments also neglected to maintain a surge production capacity for critical goods if a major health emergency were to arise. After SARS had been overcome in 2003, investment in developing countermeasures halted lacking a market. MacKenzie argues that if public investment into vaccine research against the coronavirus had continued, then we may have had a head start in containing the COVID-19 crisis.
A second major contributing element are governments’ reluctance to heed warnings by scientists. For all the optimism that existed after the eradication of smallpox, by the end of the 1980s infectious disease experts were sounding the first alarm bells about emerging and re-emerging diseases. They also noted the zoonotic origin of many of the new health threats: as humans were increasingly destroying or penetrating the natural habitat for many species, multiple animal pathogens mutated to infect humans and then to become transmissible among humans. Their alarm signals did not prompt governments to raise their guards, meaning that when epidemics arrived, they had to rush measures, more often improvising than implementing preconceived policies. When opportunities presented themselves to re-evaluate political and economic choices, they ignored those early warning signals.
A third major strand MacKenzie identifies through the analysis of complex systems. In our globalised societies everything has become tightly and efficiently interconnected. This optimisation benefits profits. Therefore, supplies arrive ‘just-in-time’ and production sources are offshored to low-wage countries. One consequence, as most of us discovered during the COVID-19 crisis, is that most medication and medical equipment are manufactured in China (another thing health professionals had warned policy makers about several years earlier). Another upshot is the extreme rigidity in a highly optimised complex system. A shock gets transmitted through much of that system; if a link breaks down, the whole system suffers.
From a security perspective, no system should be optimised to the hilt. ‘Resilience’ and ‘redundancy’ are central concepts. Systems should be able to withstand maximal stresses. Should a link give way, then alternative options or routes must be available to immediately take over the failed link’s functions. The consequences of the rigidly organised complex system of international production, transport and delivery became almost instantaneously visible. With China in lock-down when the number of COVID cases exploded in Europe and the USA, much of the critical equipment such as face masks, disinfectant hand lotions or ventilators were lacking. Their unavailability from production sources – in China mostly – led to panicky decision-making and inept initial responses. Especially the hasty closing of borders contributed to further perturbations in the global system, affecting other economic sectors (including travel and tourism).
On the level of companies big and small, what was good for shareholders and balance sheets proved once more a liability in a crisis. Just like governments did not learn from the first SARS epidemic, companies ignored the lessons available to learn from the 2008 financial crisis. Governments this time stepped in with rescue packages costing hundreds of billions, if not trillions of Euros in taxpayer revenue to save the economy and employment. Big companies and smaller, family-owned businesses are failing or will crash once government-supported measures end and the COVID crisis is not yet over.
As MacKenzie wryly remarks, had governments been less willing to be economically or fiscally optimised and invested tens of billions of Euros in disease surveillance, preparedness and health as a public good over the years, then today they would be saving a multitude of that money now being expended as crisis response. And that thought does not even take the human and societal toll from lack of resilience and redundancy into account.
A ‘black swan’ event COVID-19 is not. MacKenzie illustrates throughout her book how scientists have been sounding alarms for many years. Both the outbreak and its consequences were foreseeable. The lack of preparation was a consequence of political and economic (so-called ‘rational’) decision-making, driven by ideological preferences.
The Wuhan lab, bats, and the USA
The author opens the fourth chapter with a curt answer to where Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) originated: ‘The COVID-19 virus comes from bats’. To emphasise the point, she adds: ‘So did SARS. So do MERS, Ebola, Marburg, Nipah, Hendra, and Lassa viruses.’ The bigger point: We need not look for exotic explanations about the beginning of COVID-19, such as a genetically engineered pathogen or an agent that escaped from a laboratory. She also gives short shrift to the idea that civets or pangolins at a wet market might have transmitted the virus to humans. When Chinese scientists, most from Wuhan where the outbreak was raging, summarised their work in late January 2020, they confirmed their finding that SARS-like coronaviruses had their natural reservoir in bats and that several among them had the potential to infect humans. The virus killing people in the city was 96 percent identical to one found in bats and uses the same cellular receptor. The SARS-like virus in pangolins is much more different.
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has played a key role in this monitoring of bats and research. Not in the sense of biological weapons research or a major biosafety incident as many press reports and commentators have suggested. Whether the wet market played any role in the outbreak still needs to be determined. However, as MacKenzie points out, many locals and bats interact in several ways with each other. Bats on the traditional Chinese menu are the larger fruit bats rather than the much smaller insect-eating horseshoe bats, which are host to SARS-like corona viruses. Therefore, traditional medicine may play a much larger role. Horseshoe bats’ faeces are used in products to treat several conditions due to the high Vitamin A content. The list of afflictions includes eye disorders. Researchers have confirmed coronaviruses in fresh horseshoe bat droppings. Drying such faeces might kill most, but not all pathogens present. The eye has receptors onto which SARS-CoV-2 latches itself, and research suggests that the virus may be persistent there. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine recommend the application of a water solution directly to the eye. It is therefore possible that the eye may have been an important route of infection. Dried bodies of the horseshoe bat are also a traditional remedy against coughs. Impoverished people catch horseshoe bats and collect their droppings, which may have created other routes through which humans might have contracted COVID. The faeces are also applied as an agricultural fertiliser.
Shortly after the SARS outbreak in China the Wuhan Institute of Virology began searching for the virus in nature. Right from the start the scientists considered bats (and their products in food and medicine sold on markets) as reservoirs for coronaviruses and mapped out the genetic diversity of the virus and how they attacked cells.
The Chinese researchers, however, did not work alone. They partnered with other initiatives, including from the USA. The PREDICT programme of the US Agency for International Development had set up local labs and surveillance in China and other countries with infectious disease hotspots. Their work included, among other things, detection of coronaviruses. A team from the EcoHealth Alliance, a PREDICT partner, isolated a live SARS virus that could infect both bat and human cells. It triggered an immediate immune response in people who had suffered SARS in 2003. After fourteen years, in 2017, they established the provenance of the SARS virus from bats as a scientific fact.
PREDICT also found that several coronaviruses were on the verge of human infection, meaning they did not require the intermediary of another animal species or much additional adaptation to cause illness. MacKenzie writes this knowledge was already available seven years ago and had been reported to a meeting on emerging diseases in Vienna in 2016. It was also noted that the new virus type might avoid experimental SARS vaccines.
From this the USA not only had the scientific data to understand the risks posed by novel types of coronaviruses, but also knew the activities in the Wuhan Institute of Virology. But the Trump administration shuttered the pandemic monitoring programme. Funding ended in 2019 and activities stopped in September after the money had run out. (It received an emergency extension for six months, starting in April 2020.) This followed on earlier actions that reduced the US Centers for Disease Prevention’s presence in China from 47 to 14 staff members since January 2017, downgrading monitoring capacity. Disease surveillance and early warning – at least for the USA – could not have been interrupted at a more critical moment.
A perfect storm just does not care about conspiracy theories, disinformation campaigns or alternative facts. It just takes place.
A sobering analysis
Debora MacKenzie presents us with sobering analysis of how an outbreak that infectious disease experts had been expecting for some years could turn into a global pandemic. Decisions made for political, ideological and economic reasons over the past four decades – some specifically relating to public health and infectious disease surveillance; other ones to how an increasingly interconnected, globalising society was organising itself – created the preconditions for the fast spread of SARS-CoV-2.
She also discusses many decisions by different actors once the outbreak had begun. These have been less the subject of the present review, but they were equally consequential. We can think of the refusal of lower and mid-level bureaucrats in China to transmit early reports of victims to the central government. There were the early actions by Chinese authorities to limit surveillance and containment only to people who had travelled to Wuhan; an error many governments in Europe and especially the USA repeated by initially focussing on persons coming out of China. As MacKenzie discusses, the first reflex (as seen in so many past pandemics) to blame foreigners produced measures that exacerbated the spread of the virus.
While the author introduces the reader to the basic science behind the COVID-19 pandemic (and actually makes the effort to explain terms and concepts in an easily digestible way), her broad knowledge of the ways social dynamics shape science and her long experience as a science journalist have yielded a most valuable book on how to understand current events. The book comes early in the pandemic and certain questions remain open. For sure, other sociological and political research questions rest to be formulated and answered.
Through her fluent writing and ease of explaining complex issues, she not only captivates the reader (it is difficult to put the book aside once having started to read it), but also helps her or him to make sense of an existential crisis many people alive today have not yet experienced before.
The Executive Council of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) held its 94th session from 7–10 July. Prominent on the agenda was the determination by the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) that ‘there are reasonable grounds to believe’ that Syrian government forces bear responsibility for several chemical weapon (CW) attacks at the end of March 2017.
The finding is the first time that the Technical Secretariat of the OPCW has formally charged a state party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) with violating Article I, para. 1(b) to never under any circumstances use CW. The accusation is serious: few other provisions in the convention could be less ambiguous.
The 41-member Executive Council approved the Decision addressing the possession and use of chemical weapons by the Syrian Arab Republic by a large majority: 29 against 3 (with 9 abstentions). It opens the door to further investigation of war crimes and prosecution of individual perpetrators of such crimes under international law. It also sets the process in motion whereby parties to the CWC may hold another state party accountable for major treaty breaches. This would be a first in the 23-year history of the disarmament agreement.
With the recent international attention to riot control agents (RCA) people have raised the question how their use against protesting civilians can be legal when the toxic agents are internationally banned from battlefields.
Framed as such, the question is not entirely correct. In my previous blog posting I argued that outlawing RCAs for law enforcement and riot control based on the above reasoning may run into complications in the United States because the country still identifies operational military roles for irritants on the battlefield in contravention of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
This article sketches the convoluted history of harassing agents as a means of combat and a police tool. For hundreds of centuries until the late Middle Ages irritants were part of siege warfare. In the 19th century interest returned because of a new competition between defensive structures and breaching weaponry. Just like in earlier times, toxic fumes could drive defenders from their enclosed positions. The rise of chemistry introduced new compounds with the potential to clear occupants from fortifications.
Just before World War 1 French police had to confront a new form of gangsterism. Bandits used the most advanced weaponry and tools not yet available to police officers, they barricaded themselves in buildings, and resisted arrest until their last bullet. To reduce bloodshed, the police investigated alternatives to dislodge the new creed of brigands.
‘Tear-gas’ may come to symbolise the Trump Administration’s heavy-handed response to the popular reaction against the killing of George Floyd, a middle-aged black man, by a white police officer. The President’s rolling thunder of insensitive, divisive tweets extolling law and order and deriding the legitimate demands by the Black Lives Matter movement has contributed to irresponsible use of force against essentially peaceful protesters, onlookers, and members of the press. Police brutality combined with widespread lack of accountability – unless a person gets killed or an incident is captured on media – has led to multiple types of excesses. When President Trump sallied out of the fenced White House for a photo session in front of the nearby St John’s Episcopal Church, police and National Guard units cleared his path by tear-gassing protesters. Moments earlier he had threatened state governors with the deployment of the US military unless they use the National Guard in sufficient numbers to ‘dominate the streets’.
Over the past weeks many commentators have zoomed in on riot control agents (RCAs), arguing that lachrymators have been internationally banned for war but not for quenching public disturbances or riots. Fact-checker sections in newspapers generally confirm the assertion citing relevant provisions in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). Prominent politicians, city councils, civil rights leaders and many other human rights advocates in the United States are now calling to prohibit RCAs for crowd control purposes.
While valid for the international community, is the assertion that RCAs cannot be used in war correct for the United States?
On June 5 the IAEA Director General provided a report to the Board of Governors on an ongoing dispute with Iran concerning requests the IAEA has made to inspect several sites in Iran suspected of being past locations of undeclared nuclear material. Iran claims that there are “some legal ambiguities and concerns which need to be addressed” before access is granted. Assumedly those legal concerns involve interpretations of the Additional Protocol agreement that Iran is provisionally applying pursuant to the terms of the JCPOA.
A friend sent me the report in the interests of transparency. You can access it below.
Jonathan Tirone has some good explanatory commentary about the report here.
I wanted to bring readers’ attention to a paper I recently wrote on strategic trade controls. It’s forthcoming in an edited collection, but it’s available now on SSRN at this link. STCs are a subject I’ve been working on for about 18 years, since my days of studying and working with the excellent staff at the University of Georgia Center for International Trade and Security. STCs are an often undervalued but extremely important part of the overall system of WMD nonproliferation law. I wrote this piece based upon both my academic work in the area, and the work on the ground I’ve done over the past few years advising the Government of Jordan on the creation of their new transit and transshipment STC law. I hope some find it a useful explication of the area.
Dazed. Shocked. Stunned. Does any one of these words even begin to convey my reaction when around noon on 23 April I received the phone call informing me of Julian’s passing, having lost the battle against COVID-19 the night before?
When I entered the field of chemical and biological warfare in 1986, his name immediately stood out. Julian Perry Robinson, a name immediately associated with the Stockholm International Peace research Institute (SIPRI) and the University of Sussex, near Brighton in the south of England. Our first encounter was in 1989. In hindsight, it was unsurprisingly at a workshop bringing together representatives from civil society, the peace movement, students, and academics. It took place at a central-London Quaker centre. My goal of attending the meeting was to meet with Julian and talk about my master’s dissertation on chemical weapon (CW) armament dynamics. My memory is that when we were both together in the same room, we walked straight towards each other and shook hands. No ice ever had to be broken.
Writing down my personal memories has not come easily. Yet, with passing of days, an irony dawned on me: he who had given so much of his life to preventing chemical and biological warfare left us on the anniversary of the first major CW attack in the First World War. Not to mention that he came into this world on the 23rd anniversary of Armistice Day.
Contrary to nuclear and conventional weapons, interest in chemical and biological weapons (CBW) has always waxed and waned in long waves. Whenever CBW became politically or socially controversial, droves of people would enter the field. When the issue disappeared, so did those persons. Like fruit flies, after dropping a piece of banana in a bin and then emptying that bin. Julian was part of what I always thought of as the first wave that rose in the mid-1960s and coalesced around the just established SIPRI.
There a group of young academics came together who would eventually write the 6-volume The Problem of Chemical and Biological Warfare, published between 1971 and 1975. Besides Julian, there was Joseph Goldblat, Carl-Göran Hedén, Milton Leitenberg, Arthur Westing, and several others. The six volumes did not appear in chronological order, but in the preface to the 5th book (1971), then Director Robert Neild recognised Julian’s centrality to the endeavour:
It is usually wrong to single out one person from a team but in this case there is no doubt that one person has contributed more than anyone else to the study. He is Julian Perry Robinson who has written more of the study than anyone else and has had a great influence on the whole shape and quality of it.
Further in the distance, there were other formidable figures such as Matt Meselson and Martin Kaplan, and so many more. The fabric that held them together for decades was the so-called Pugwash movement (in full the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs). As Julian recorded in his history of the Pugwash movement and CBW, at its origin in 1966, the Pugwash study group on biological weapons (BW) and the nascent SIPRI’s BW project ‘were actually two facets of the same activity’. That symbiotic relationship continued for many decades. Read the rest of this entry »