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Developments in science and technology that impact the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

16 December 2015

Today, IAP (the global network of science academies) publishes, in partnership with the Royal Society, the US National Academy of Sciences and the Polish Academy of Science, a review of scientific and technological developments that have implications for the UN Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC).

The review, available to download, is being presented at a side event at the Meeting of the States Parties to the BWC in Geneva, Switzerland. It ensures that the most up to date scientific advice in the area of biosciences is available to assist policy makers in preparing for the 8th BWC Review Conference, which takes in place December 2016. 

Professor Rod Flower FRS, who chaired the project, said “Whilst the malevolent uses of biological organisms or toxins has been historically low, new scientific advances present both opportunities and possible risks in the foreseeable future. For instance, this year gene editing has raised a number of ethical concerns, including the potential biosecurity risks it poses.

“The scientific community has an important role to play in helping policy makers identify measures to manage these risks without jeopardising the enormous potential benefits from research advances. We look forward to feeding our findings into the Meeting of the State Parties to support discussions ahead of the 2016 BWC Review Conference.”

Key issues highlighted in the review include:

  • Biosciences are developing at an unprecedented rate and moving from ‘concept’ to ‘application’ is becoming ever simpler, with costs continuing to fall. This has both positive and negative implications for the BWC.
  • Technological barriers to acquiring and using a biological weapon have been significantly eroded since the Seventh Review Conference (2011).
  • Although these new advances in biotechnology could be used for non-peaceful purposes they are still expensive and complicated to acquire and deploy successfully. This situation may change in the future, reinforcing the need for on-going efforts to review relevant developments in science and technology.
  • The ‘bio-economy’ has grown significantly and is therefore itself a potential target for attack.
  • A positive outcome since the Seventh Review Conference is that the global ability to quickly and accurately detect and treat disease has been greatly enhanced thanks to developments in technology such as genetic sequencing.

Today’s side event, hosted by the Royal Society and IAP, also includes presentations about synthetic biology and microbial forensics, a relatively new scientific discipline used to help investigate possible bioterrorism attacks, or inadvertent microorganism or toxin release.