An Infection Preventionist's Take on the 2017 Biological Weapons Convention


Saskia Popescu, MPH, MA, CIC, breaks down why an unlikely presence at the BWC highlights the growing importance of civil society involvement in global health safety and security.

It seems an unlikely story that an infection prevention (IP) epidemiologist would attend a Meeting of the States Parties (MSP) at the United Nations (UN), but here’s why civil society has an important role in the work that IPs do.

My background is in health care infection control and infectious disease epidemiology and while working on my PhD in Biodefense at George Mason University, I was fortunate to be selected for the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security Emerging Leaders in Biosecurity Initiative (ELBI). You can read more about my take on the fellowship here, but the truth is that the Center for Health Security has a special knack for selecting a diverse group of professionals and academics who all share one unique thing: a deep-rooted passion for biosecurity and biodefense. During my 2017 fellowship, I was fortunate to be selected to attend the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) MSP at the UN in Geneva, Switzerland. Not only is this a life-long goal for many who study or work in biodefense, but it also signals an increasingly larger role of civil society and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) within the BWC.

The BWC is a landmark regime and treaty that is the first of its kind. In 1972, it was signed as the first multilateral disarmament treaty that banned an entire category of weapons whether it was the development, production, or stockpiling of such weapons.

Prior to the BWC entering the force on March 26, 1972, there were several state-sponsored biological weapons programs. That’s right, countries like the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Russia, all had offensive programs to build biological weapons. The BWC sought to stop the proliferation of these weapons through several methods like confidence-building measures (CBMs) to help reduce the ambiguity of what biological weapons are (and are not) and establish some transparency between countries.

The truth is that bioweapons development and manufacturing shares similar mechanics and expertise traits with biodefense efforts. The dual-use nature of much of this equipment, expert workforce, etc, can be misconstrued to be an active bioweapons program when it’s not, and vice versa. In fact, a Russian bioweapons program continued for many years after the BWC because it was sold as work on defense and pharmaceutical facilities, which mislead many individuals.

CBMs play a large role in not only compliance with the BWC, but also helping to reduce suspicion and improver international cooperation. CBMs include data on research centers and laboratories, information on outbreaks of infectious diseases and toxins, as well as vaccine production facilities.

This year’s MSP was especially poignant since the last Review Conference was an epic failure. Without delving into the politics of it, let’s just say that international relations can be a tricky thing on the best of days. (You can read more about the last Review Conference failure and a daily recap of the MSP here.)

During my time observing the international peace efforts in action, I wondered if I, an epidemiologist in hospitals, would be totally out of place at the MSP. Surprisingly, the world of the BWC and the NGOs who play a vital role in providing expert guidance, are made up of many individuals with diverse backgrounds, from ethics to medicine and a variety of humanities. In fact, I feel that there are 2 things that should underline the importance of NGOs and civil society being involved in international treaties such as the BWC:

  1. Inherently, our work plays into the CBMs. Who does communicable disease reporting at a county level? Yours truly, and that feeds into the state health departments and then up through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which goes into the CBM.
  2. With the rapid pace of advancements in the life sciences—such as gain-of-function research or genome editing like CRISPR—it is critical that treaties like the BWC be modernized to maintain relevancy. This requires experts from civil society who can work across international borders.

I may not have been the most likely candidate to attend an MSP for a multilateral disarmament treaty, but after speaking with so many experts (many of whom have spent decades working with the BWC, as well as many who were there for the first time like me) it made me realize that it is those of us on the ground and in the field who have a vital role in contributing to global health safety and security. Infectious disease experts and public health officials are critical to helping strengthen and modernize a treaty that is so crucial. As talks of North Korea’s biological weapons program grow, I think we can all appreciate the hard work that both the delegates and the NGOs are doing to prevent the development and use of biological weapons.

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