Trust & Transparency in Biodefence

Barriers to acquiring and using biological weapons have been significantly reduced in recent years. Key developments contributing to this are advances in science and technology, especially in the fields of gene editing and synthetic biology; erosion in the norm against unconventional weapons, most visibly through the continual use of chemical weapons in Syria; and a possible emerging utility of biological weapons in future wars and conflicts.

Recent years have also seen a dramatic increase in biodefence activities and in the number of facilities and researchers working with dangerous pathogens around the world.

States with biodefence programmes have a special responsibility to demonstrate that their defensive activities are not used as a cover for offensive programmes, and that their programmes are not perceived as such. It is particularly important to proactively counter the perception that a biodefence programme may be used to disguise an offensive programme, or elements of an offensive programme, because such a perception may provide other states with justification for initiating or continuing their own offensive biological warfare programmes.

Unusually for an arms control treaty, however, the BWC was agreed without including routine on-site verification mechanisms to ensure compliance. Transparency is therefore paramount for states with biodefence programmes.

Most states with biodefence programmes recognize their responsibility to ensure high standards of transparency. They submit information about their programmes as required under the confidence-building measures of the BWC to reassure other states that their activities are solely for peaceful purposes. Recently, a small number of states have voluntarily gone further in their efforts to be transparent and to allay any potential suspicions about the status of their biodefence programmes. Through interactive information exchanges they have invited peers from other states to visit their facilities and informally review their treaty compliance. In biological compliance assessments, the emphasis is not on counting hardware and measuring quantities, but almost exclusively on conveying and establishing the intent behind research activities. While confidence through evidence-based judgements play a significant role in assessing this intent, trust between peers also plays an important role.

My work explores the complex relationship between transparency, evidence-based judgements and trust in biodefence.   Recent fieldwork sites include the German Bundeswehr Institute of Microbiology in Munich and the Portuguese Army Biological Institute in Lisbon.

Key project publications:

November 2016, ILPI BWC Review Conference Series Paper No.3 on 21st Century Biodefence: Risks, Trade-Offs & Responsible Science

November 2016, EU Non-Proliferation Consortium Briefing Paper No.52 on Increasing Transparency in Biodefence: A 2016 Visit to a German Military Medical Biodefence Facility