Promoting chemical knowledge

[Cross-posted from The Trench]


On 2 May the Technical Secretariat of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) organised a workshop relating to its programme to fully implement Article XI of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). I addressed the States Parties in the session on ‘Promoting chemical knowledge’ and focussed on the responsibilities of chemists, both as members of their scientific associations and as individuals, in preventing the misuse of their discipline.


Consequences down the road

The role of chemists in war is not a new thing. The role of chemists in chemical warfare is of more recent origin. Just over a century ago, modern chemical warfare, as it began in my country, Belgium, on 22 April 1915, may seem like it came out of the blue. Actually, it resulted from the confluence of several trends in Europe and North America. Those trends emerged in the late 18th century. They included the establishment of chemistry as a science and the onset of the first industrial revolution. Those trends gathered pace throughout the 19th century.

Chemistry discovered many new molecules. Organic chemistry—one of the early convergences of chemistry and biology (another one of the new scientific disciplines)—yielded compounds that later often acquired widespread use as intermediaries in industrial production. Many decades after their initial discovery, several also became warfare agents during the 1st World War. In the first half of the 19th century, chemists also synthesised the first organophosphorus structures, which laid the foundation for the development of the nerve agents from the mid-1930s onwards.

After 1850, industrialisation increasingly shaped the organisation of science; it gave direction to the scientific endeavour; and it helped to restructure the scientific curricula at universities and other institutions of education. The idea of science for science’s sake gave way to a much more utilitarian vision in service of society.

Stagnation on the Western front in the autumn of 1914 would prove to be the catalyst for modern chemical warfare. Belligerents drew on national industrial and scientific prowess to try and force the decisive breakthrough on the battlefield to end the carnage. Toxic chemicals used to deliberately harm humans were one choice. Alas.

Addressing the audience in the Ieper Room at the OPCW headquarters

I am not saying that in the 19th and early 20th century chemists set out to design and develop chemical weapons (CW). All I know is that in each of the belligerent countries, these chemists were fully aware of the social and technological dynamics that were transforming their respective societies; often they were the drivers of these changes.

The 1st World War was the catalyst that brought science, industry and military art together with the purpose of devising a new mode of warfare. It was almost accidental. (With the design of the atomic bomb a quarter of a century later, the convergence was deliberate, and governments have maintained that interconnectedness ever since.)

Today, our societies are once again undergoing major transformations. Chemistry is changing fast; the interactions with other disciplines are widening as well as deepening. Chemical industry has spread across the planet; so many people all over the world are seeking careers in fields that have more than a tangible impact on the CWC. These areas are also critical to development; they are key to ameliorating the conditions of peoples everywhere and meeting future challenges to individual and human survival.

International cooperation and development benefit from peaceful intent

The OPCW’s Advisory Board on Education and Outreach (ABEO) is keenly aware of current transformations that might once again contribute to CW development and acquisition. Its members are also keenly aware that we are facing new situations in which toxic chemicals can be and are being used. A big challenge to the CWC is that our conception of CW is changing fast. Indeed, opportunistic use of industrial toxicants (such as chlorine) on the battlefields, terrorism and non-state actor use of toxic agents, and now more recently, assassinations with substances that had initially been developed or produced for military arsenals, are situations the CWC negotiators could not—and did not–anticipate.

In February of this year, the ABEO produced a report on the role of education and outreach in preventing the re-emergence of CW. It contains many recommendations for the Technical Secretariat to enhance the impact of its activities with States Parties in terms of education and outreach. The report also addresses how chemists everywhere can expand their consciousness about the dual-use characteristics of much of their work. It also seeks to enhance their awareness of the international and domestic scientific and technological environment in which they are functioning. It helps them to anticipate possible outcomes of their work many years into the future.

Engagement of chemists is evident from a key clause in the report’s title: ‘preventing the re-emergence of CW’. The report defines this goal as ‘the collective of actions undertaken by the OPCW, its Secretariat, and the National Authorities to implement the Convention, on the one hand, and by professional, scientific, and academic communities, as well as civil society constituencies and individuals, to advance consciousness, responsibility, and specific behaviours that support purposes not prohibited by the Convention, on the other hand’. (p. 6, para. 2.11)

In other words, ‘Prevention of the re-emergence of chemical weapons’ appeals to the responsibility of stakeholder communities and individuals, including chemists, to uphold the norm in the CWC.

Members of the ABEO have been involved in the development of the Hague Ethical Guidelines to promote responsible practice of chemistry. They are also active in promoting the Ethical Guidelines, including through active learning processes that involve chemists, which are advanced in the ABEO report. Some members have been instrumental in mobilising chemical societies and chemical industry councils to formally condemn the use of chlorine as a weapon. Some among them have also participated in the development of the on-line educational tool ‘Multiple Uses of Chemicals’ to promote the beneficial uses and prevent abuses of multiple-use chemicals, which the Technical Secretariat now supports by offering translation into the six official languages.

Reaching out to today’s chemist and the next generation of chemists (who are now in secondary school) is a task that National Authorities can help to promote, in addition to the ongoing initiatives undertaken by the Technical Secretariat.

At this point, I wish to stress that while the ABEO report suggests educational strategies, it does not offer one-size-fits-all suggestions. There is great need to adapt educational strategies to specific regional and national characteristics.

Awareness of the challenges—those visible today, as well as those looming on the horizon—is a task of permanent education. The ABEO report contains many practical examples of how such permanent education can be organised and practically implemented. It is of benefit to development for peaceful purposes and international collaboration in the scientific field of chemistry worldwide.

States Parties are welcome to approach the ABEO and its members—via the Office of Strategy and Policy of the Technical Secretariat—for assistance and concrete advice on education and outreach to key stakeholder groups.

Thank you.



Understanding the Dutch export licence requirement for publishing life science research

[Cross-posted from The Trench]

During the Meeting of Experts of states parties to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) last August, the Netherlands organised or co-hosted three side events relating to safeguarding the life sciences. A significant incident, in which the Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier and his team were required to obtain an export licence to publish their research on how they had mutated H5N1 into an aerosol-transmissible avian influenza virus variant, undeniably informed the need to clarify national policies and approaches to biorisk management. A month earlier the Appellate Court had annulled the ruling by a lower court in support of the government position on procedural grounds. Does this annulment validate the Dutch government’s position or does it imply that the whole debate about the publication of so-called dual-use research in the life sciences is back to square one? Moreover, in the meantime the debate had evolved from a terrorist proliferation risk to one of health security in which the ethics and utility of this type of gain-of-function research stand central. In other words, do biosafety worries warrant biosecurity policy measures, such as the imposition of non-proliferation export controls?

Some background to the Netherlands decision

In September 2011 the European Scientific Working Group on Influenza (ESWI) held its fourth conference in Malta. Europe and the world were then confronting an outbreak of avian influenza caused by the H5N1 virus. Its rapid spread among birds over long distances caused governments worldwide to order drastic measures in efforts to stem the epidemic. Over 500 humans (representing some 60% of all people who had contracted the disease) had already died, but all deaths thus far had resulted from direct interaction with fowl and not from human-to-human transmission.

In Malta Ron Fouchier announced that he and his team at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam had succeeded in transforming H5N1 into a viable aerosol virus. According one conference report he applied rather colourful language: his team ‘mutated the hell out of H5N1’. The discovery that it required as few as three single mutations to gain the ability to latch onto cells in the nasal and tracheal passageways, he described as ‘very bad news’. Transmission among ferrets, a mammal that offers the best laboratory model to study influenza in humans, still did not occur easily when, in Fouchier’s recorded words, ‘someone finally convinced me to do something really, really stupid’. They provoked two further mutations by transferring mutated viruses from the nose of one sick ferret to that of a healthy one, in the process creating the viable aerosol virus.

Initial articles on the gain-of-function research did not suggest any link with bioterrorism, but sometimes carried dramatic titles evoking cataclysmic consequences reminiscent of the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed tens of millions worldwide. However, Fouchier’s dramatic speech caught the attention of counter-terrorism officials on both sides of the Atlantic. When he offered his research results for publication in Science, the  US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) intervened and eventually accepted publication provided some methodological details were removed from the text. (A parallel paper on H5N1 submitted to Nature by a team led by US scientist Yoshihiro Kawaoka fared a similar fate.) NSABB considered the biosecurity risks outweighed any scientific merit in this type of research: rogue laboratory researchers or terrorists might wish to unleash the deadly virus on the human race to devastating effect.

NSABB’s intervention caused controversy with one side calling it censorship and the other side up in arms that publication had been authorised at all. In the United States, self-publication on the internet was not legally restricted at the time. In the Netherlands too the affair had caught the attention of authorities, many of whom wanted to block publication outright, but lacked the appropriate legal tools to do so. The only way to appraise the risks for malfeasance posed by information in the research manuscript was to implement non-proliferation export controls, which according to European Union regulations must be enforced for applied (but not fundamental) research in the life sciences.

The Netherlands decision caused shockwaves among European life scientists. After initial defiance, Fouchier and his team eventually applied for and received an export licence. Otherwise he might have faced up to six years imprisonment and $102,000 in fines.  The Erasmus Medical Center subsequently took the government to court to have the principle of export licences for scientific research overturned. On 20 September 2013 the District Court of North Holland ruled in favour of the government, but on 15 July 2015 the Appellate Court in Amsterdam annulled the ruling, saying that the case was without merit in view of the application and granting of an export licence. Put differently, the lower court should have never taken up the case. As presented during the BTWC Meeting of Experts in August 2015, the Dutch Government believes that the juridical process vindicated its approach to research with potential dual-use implications.

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Future of the CWC in the post-destruction phase

The future of the CWC in the post-destruction phase
Report – No15 – 27 March 2013
Yasemin Balci, Richard Guthrie, Ralf Trapp, Cindy Vestergaard, Jean Pascal Zanders
edited by Jean Pascal Zanders

From the Foreword by Ambassador Jacek Bylica, Principal Adviser and Special Envoy for Non-proliferation and Disarmament, European External Action Service:

The international community can be justifiably proud of the Chemical Weapons Convention. It has banned an entire category of weapons of mass destruction and provided for their verifiable elimination under international supervision. A small but effective intergovernmental organisation, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), has been created for this purpose.


In the present international situation it is important to note that the Convention has created a de facto legal norm against the production, possession and usage of chemical weapons for military purposes. This prohibition goes beyond the letter of the Convention and stems from the reactions to the tragic experience of World War I and more recent cases of CW usage, including against non-combatants.


This volume features contributions derived from some of the presentations made by world-class experts at the workshop organised by the EU Institute for Security Studies in cooperation with the European External Action Service on 10 September 2012. The workshop offered an opportunity to reflect on some of the challenges facing the CWC over the next decade in preparation of the Third Review Conference at The Hague in April 2013. I am confident that this report presents an invaluable contribution to the debate on the future direction of our joint efforts which aim at the total and irreversible elimination of chemical weapons from the face of the Earth.