Rapid advances in gene editing and so-called “DIY biological laboratories,” which could be used by extremists, threaten to derail efforts to prevent biological weapons from being used against civilians.
At meetings taking place at the United Nations in Geneva this month, representatives from more than 100 countries that have signed on to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) – together with civilian experts and academics – discussed how they could ensure that science is used to positive ends, in line with the UN disarmament blueprint.
Although the potential impact of a biological weapons attack could be huge, the likelihood of an attack occurring is not currently believed to be high. The last attack dates back to 2001, when letters containing toxic anthrax spores killed five people in the U.S., beginning a week after al-Qaeda terrorists launched the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
Nonetheless, the rise of extremist groups and the potential risk of research programs being misused has focused attention on the work of the BWC.
Daniel Feakes, head of the BWC Implementation Support Unit at the UN in Geneva, confirmed there is interest in research programs from terror groups. “At the worst, you could be talking of epidemics on the scale of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, or even a global pandemic that could result in millions of deaths,” he said.
In a bid to stay on top of the latest biological developments and threats, the BWC’s 181 member states hold a series of meetings with experts every year, traditionally in the summer. The reports that are discussed during these sessions are then formerly appraised in December.
Among the developments discussed at this year’s meeting was the gene-editing technique CRISPR. It can be applied, in theory, to any organism. Outside the Geneva body, CRISPR’s use has raised ethical questions, but among UN members security ramifications dominated discussions.
Gene editing, in simple terms, involves the copying of exact strands of DNA, similar to cutting and pasting text on a computer. Feakes said that CRISPR could potentially be used to develop more effective biological weapons, noting the growing trend of DIY biological labs. However, the meetings focused on the promotion of “responsible science” so that scientists are part of the solution, not the problem.
“You can’t ban CRISPR or gene editing,” said Feakes, “because they can do so much good, like finding cures for diseases or combating climate change. But we still need to manage these techniques and technologies to ensure they are used responsibly.”
In addition to concerns that the BWC lacks full international backing, the body has also faced criticism that its members are not obliged to allow external checks on any illegal stockpiles they might have. The issue highlights the fact that the BWC lacks a strong institution, its handful of administrators dwarfed by larger sister organizations including the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The OPCW’s 500-strong staff have weapons inspectors and training facilities, whereas the BWC’s focus is much more about what countries do at a national level.