IAP at the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

Mon, August 12, 2019

This year, the Meeting of Experts of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) ran from 31 July to 2 August. As in previous years, IAP was represented there, and once again, events were organised in collaboration with the US National Academies of Science, Medicine and Engineering (US NASEM).

On 1 August, IAP and NASEM hosted a workshop on ‘Frameworks for Assessing the Risks and Benefits of Advances in Science and Technology: An experts meeting to inform the States Parties of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention’, with more than 25 invited experts from some 20 countries. Yuri Nikolaichek (Belarus), chair of the BWC Meeting of Experts agenda item 2 (which was the most relevant to the day’s discussions) also attended the opening session of the workshop.

The aim of the meeting was to examine and test how a ‘framework' and a ‘decision tree’ might be used to assess the potential risks associated with two hypothetical, but realistic, biotechnology research case examples.

The frameworks can be foud here:

  • Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology, published by US NASEM in 2018 and presented at the 2018 Meeting of Experts of the BWC (see here), and
  • Innovation, Dual Use, and Security: Managing the risks of emerging biological and chemical technologies. J.B. Tucker (ed.), Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012 (see here).

The first of the two research case examples designed to test these frameworks involved an emerging virus that was causing disease in animals and livestock. During reseach into the virus, sequence variations were analysed, one of which was thought to be able to confer transmissibility to humans, and this information was presented at a scientific conference.

The second case study involved the aim of developing a temporary drug delivery system using a bacterium that can be introduced into the gut’s microbiome, with the aim of switching off the delivery mechanism after a given amount of time.

In thought experiments carried out by the convened experts (in two parallel break-out groups) both frameworks were tested against each case and the results discussed between the groups.

Interestingly, both groups came to similar conclusions regarding the risks associated with each scenario, independent of which framework was used to assess the implications of the hypothetical research. Participants agreed, therefore, that both frameworks could be useful tools for the BWC States Parties (individually at the national level, or collectively at the international level) to assess the risks of emerging biotechnologies.

In a separate session, participants also discussed how to design a framework to assess the potential benefits of any such research, with the aim of aiding any decision-making process for comparing risks and benefits. It was agreed that any such framework should be similar to the one being used to assess risks so that direct comparisons could be made and informed decisions reached.

Such outcomes of the experts meeting were presented the following day: first during a side event organized by IAP and US NASEM, and shortly after, by invitation of the chair, Mr. Nikolaichek, in the plenary session of the States Parties.

The side event, attended by some 60 participants including representattives of the national delegations of India, the UK and the USA, was chaired by IAP Coordinator, Peter McGrath, with summaries of the previous day’s discussions presented by Katie Bowman (US NASEM) and Nancy Connell (Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, USA). Two additional experts who had been engaged in developing each of the frameworks; Kara Morgan (Ohio State University, USA) and Katie Bowman (US NASEM) were also available for engagement in the discussion session that followed the presentations.

Among the participants present at the side event were a group of young scientists invited by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs to attend a workshop on the the ‘Engaging Young Scientists from the Global South in Biosecurity Diplomacy'. IAP and NASEM had both been involved in disseminating the call for applications to attend this workshop, as well as in the review process to select the 20 participants from 14 countries. As well as attending their own 2-day workshop and in events of the BWC, the young scientists also engaged with their respective Permanent Missions in Geneva.

Later the same morning, Katie Bowman presented a brief overview of the workshop, including its aims and outcomes, in the plenary session of the BWC States Parties.

Questions raised by delegates of the States Parties included the possibility of assessing risks and benefits simultaneously, how such frameworks could work at the national or regional level, and the involvement of industry experts in any working group that is using such a framework to assess risks.

 All these issues were discussed the previous day, and will be taken forward by IAP and NASEM as work in this area progresses.