Bioweapons have always had inherent risks, making even the most ruthless dictators hesitant to use them. But these risks seem to be eroding thanks to biotech advancements. The Biological Weapons Convention was meant to be an additional deterrent to discourage bioweapons proliferation by forbidding the research, development, stockpiling, or use of disease in war. But in light of attacks around biological research facilities in Ukraine and, more recently, Sudan, and with greater power competitions heating to a boil, this treaty seems to be fracturing.
With these safeguards eroding and with deterrence becoming progressively risky, the United States should work to bolster the international commitment against using biological weapons by strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention and spearheading non-aggression stipulations for biological laboratories.
US DETERRENCE IS MAKING THINGS WORSE
Like any new treaty, when the Biological Weapons Convention was ratified in 1975 it was bound to have some shortcomings, but half a century later its lapses, such as the absence of verification protocols, have yet to be corrected. Verifications are when countries allow themselves to be inspected to prove their compliance with a treaty. This is difficult to do with bioweapons because many research entities would have to divulge proprietary information for inspection, risking the loss of billions of dollars by either corporate espionage or accidental contamination of valuable stocks in the inspection process. Governments would also risk exposing their legitimate national biodefense plans — and, by extension, jeopardizing national security — since defensive biology often uses equipment that could be suspected of making a bioweapon, thereby necessitating inspection and exposure.
During a congressional hearing in 2000, when the United States first began vocalizing its opposition to verification measures, Representative Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), the Chairman of the Subcommittee on National Security, summed up US concerns:
“When the same microbe and the same equipment can be used to make a life-saving vaccine one day and a deadly weapon the next… will any protocol prove more than a temporary nuisance to a determined violator? Will the uncertain benefits of a verification system outweigh the certain and substantive burdens on governments and private enterprises conducting legitimate medical research and pharmaceutical production activities?”
As US nuclear deterrence does more harm than good and biotech erodes natural barriers to bioweapons, the United States has a unique opportunity to advocate for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention.
Even in the face of the 2001 anthrax attacks, pressure from the UN, and the exposure of the Soviet Union bioweapons program, the United States chose to kick the can down the road and eschew verifications. This obstinance stoked international outrage and only isolated the United States in its defiance. But despite the backlash, the United States decided to pursue what Shay called “other avenues” for strengthening the treaty and preventing bioweapons’ use, namely using military threats to deter enemy actions.
However, these other avenues are inadequate and can simultaneously put peace at risk. For example, President Joe Biden took US deterrence too far when he signed an executive order in 2022, allowing the option of thermonuclear retaliation to non-nuclear threats. The bill was signed with the intention of deterring “enemy conventional biological … attacks” (among other things) by threatening perpetrators with nuclear destruction for any such attack, as determined necessary by the existing administration. This bill grants the administration a great deal of freedom and a very low bar for using nuclear weapons.
But Biden’s bill puts the cart before the horse because the world lacks the technology to ascertain the origin of a bioweapons attack with sufficient certainty, making the enemy harder to find and punish. Additionally, this bill leaves no room for error on the attacker’s part if they wish to avoid retaliation. In short, the bill is premature and encourages catastrophic attacks over more restrained offensives.
ADVANCING TECHNOLOGIES ARE ERODING BARRIERS
There are several natural barriers that deter malevolent actors from using bioweapons, such as the inability to either control the spread of a bioweapon or the difficulty in creating a novel bioweapon that can penetrate a nation’s defenses. For example, anthrax and cholera are rarely contagious and so were major focuses of the Soviet bioweapons program since, if deployed, they had a lower risk of spreading back into the motherland. Additionally, with the limited number of weaponizable diseases, it is easy for nations to anticipate possible biological weapons and build defenses for them, thereby blunting any potential attack.
But these barriers are eroding, and in a world where traceable missiles cost millions, and every bullet only kills a single soldier, cheap and manageable bioweapons with the added benefit of plausible deniability are becoming a more economical option for malicious actors. For example, advancements in gene technology can grant unprecedented genetic specificity to bioweapons, meaning a disease can be made that will only harm an enemy based on genetic markers, sometimes chillingly called “ethnic weapons.” Unlike with previous bioweapons, this lowers the risks to attackers of accidentally infecting themselves, removing yet another barrier that once shored up the Biological Weapons Convention.
As announced by the science journal Nature in February 2023, the Artificial Intelligence AlphaFold2 is now capable of designing never-before-seen proteins. Medically, this is exciting because it means the easier creation of specialized drugs, accelerating research and development for new medicines that can treat a plethora of illnesses, like cancer or neurological diseases. But technology like this also increases the ease with which unprecedented bioweapons can be made, be they new neuropeptides that glitch the nervous system or new prions that cause novel brain diseases. This makes it easier for a nation to create a never-before-seen weapon against which no nation has a prepared defense.
Fabio Urbina, a chemical agent AI researcher at Collaborations Pharmaceuticals, did this himself, using his team’s AI model to create tens of thousands of novel biochemical weapons, some “more toxic than VX.” He remarked earlier last year “just how easy it was” to “flip a switch” on the AI model and generate tens of thousands of new weapons.
Some pharmaceutical companies and governments do their best to keep their AI models under wraps for security and business purposes. There are also groups dedicated to advocating responsible AI use and regulation, such as the Center for Security and Emerging Technology or the Future of Life Institute. But as Urbina pointed out in an interview with The Verge, there are antagonistic state actors — like China or Iran — who already have much of this technology. It would take international efforts to reinforce existing norms to deter these entities, such as by strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention.
A CALL TO STRENGTHEN NORMS AGAINST USE
As US nuclear deterrence does more harm than good and biotech erodes natural barriers to bioweapons, the United States has a unique opportunity to advocate for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention. The Biological Weapons Convention’s newly convened Working Group, tasked in December 2022 with identifying and developing measures on compliance and verification, is evidence of an already existing political will to strengthen the treaty. The United States should take advantage of this window of momentum and propose amendments to the convention, such as stipulations against attacking biological laboratories. Such a straightforward proposal is appropriate, given the attacks on biological labs in Sudan, and would be difficult for countries to turn down without looking irresponsible or malicious. The resulting common consensus would serve to convey to potentially malicious actors that there is still a united front against bioweapons on the international level.
In the meantime, the United States can repeal Biden’s nuclear retaliation bill in favor of sole-use nuclear policy. This would demonstrate American responsibility and commitment to diplomatic solutions and further promote norms of non-use and compliance. The United States can also work to leverage biotech advancements to enhance disease tracing, thus giving teeth to future deterrent measures. By implementing these recommendations, the world can preserve norms against biological warfare of all kinds and thus be better protected against the dangers of biological risks associated with advancing technology and conflict.
Garrett Ehinger holds a bachelors in Biomedical Science with a minor in Mandarin Chinese. He was the Director of the China Lab at Brigham Young University in Idaho, director of a biodefense research team, and has studied Chinese culture and language for over a decade.