May 21, 1993 - Biological Weapons: Scientific Principles to Guide Biological Weapons Verification

The Council of the American Society for Microbiology (ASM) approved the following statement at its meeting on May 21, 1993. The ASM is the largest life science society in the world with an active membership of over 39,000.

The ASM supports the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 that prohibits the development and possession of biological and toxin weapons, as well as their use. In 1970, the Council of the ASM approved the following resolution: "The Council of the Society affirms that the health of science is enhanced by non-secret research and free movement of scientists. Furthermore, the Council affirms support of President Nixon's action on November 25, 1969, and February 14, 1970, to end our involvement in production and use of biological weapons. Because of our concern for humanitarian application of microbiological science, we urge that all nations convert existing offensive biological warfare facilities to peaceful uses." The ASM's Public and Scientific Affairs Board recently reviewed the 1970 Council resolution and reaffirmed that it still reflects the views of the membership. ASM's Code of Ethics, published in 1985, contains two relevant sections: (i) "Microbiologists . . . will discourage any use of microbiology contrary to the welfare of human kind." (ii) Microbiologists are expected to communicate knowledge obtained through their research through discussions with their peers and through publications in the scientific literature."

The ASM has stated that openness in science and the free movement of scientists establish confidence that only peaceful and defense activities are occurring. The ASM has indicated that verifying offensive biological weapons development activities is very difficult because of the potential dual nature of research in the biosciences. Effective verification rests with determining intent of ongoing activities in R&D. Biological weapons are not restricted to pathogens of people and animals, but may also include plant pathogens.Since microorganisms that may be considered for employment in biological weapon systems may be the same as naturally occurring pathogens or microorganisms used for beneficial purposes such as vaccine production, verification of compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention is a complex procedure. In the case of chemical and nuclear weapons, finding a particular banned substance provides unequivocal evidence of violation of a treaty provision. The case with biological weapons is not as straight forward because of the potential dual nature of biological research and development activity. Vaccine development often involves pathogens that could also form the basis of biological weapons. The same fermentors that are used for the production of pharmaceuticals also could be used to grow large numbers of microorganisms for use as biological warfare agents, as could flasks and other cell culture systems found in academic research laboratories. Natural occurrences of diseases such as anthrax can be mistaken for accidental or deliberate releases of biological warfare agents. Likewise, accidental or deliberate releases of such agents could be misinterpreted as outbreaks of naturally occurring diseases. Finding spores of the anthrax bacillus may very well be an isolated natural occurrence or it may be associated with an outbreak of the disease; therefore it does not necessarily indicate biological weapons activities. A system of verification that does not enable differentiation of legitimate activities and natural occurrences from offensive biological weapons development would be ineffective and would give a false sense of world security.

The following points should be used as a framework of scientific principles for the consideration of proposals for verifying compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention.

    1. 1. Detection of accidental releases or deliberate use of biological weapons requires comparison with natural occurrences of disease.
      There should be enhancement of existing epidemiological data bases to ensure that causes of disease outbreaks can be determined with a high degree of confidence. Existing data bases should be extended to include pathological data that indicate routes of transmission. The ambiguity of the 1979 outbreak of anthrax in the Soviet Union demonstrates that without an adequate database, epidemiological investigations are of only limited use in providing evidence of biological weapons. A strong epidemiological and pathological data base would provide the scientific foundation required to determine if outbreaks of disease are suspect and may be the result of biological weapons. A strong data base would also aid public health organizations in improve the health of humankind. The development of an expanded world-wide epidemiological data base, including signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention, would be a major step to improving human health. It also is essential if assessments are to be made with confidence about accidental or deliberate releases of biological weapons agents.
    1. 2. Inspections to confirm compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention should be conducted when there is adequate cause.
      When there is evidence of noncompliance with the Biological Weapons Convention, inspections- despite their intrusiveness- are warranted for such cases. There should be a recognized international authority that can authorize challenge inspections under the Biological Weapons Convention. This authoritative body should determine if, where, and when, inspections or other intrusive verification activities should be conducted. Conducting inspections for proper cause is important both for the cost of implementing the Biological Weapons Convention and because of the potential disruptions to academic and industrial research.
    1. 3. Measures should be taken to ensure compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention.
      Secrecy with regard to biological weapons is undesirable. Among the steps that can be taken to achieve this goal are exchanges of scientists among countries. Regular reports of ongoing activities also would be helpful and provide a demonstration of openness. Declarations are a provision of the Biological Weapons Convention. Visits with minimal intrusiveness to facilities described in those declarations could help build confidence of compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention. These measures could have a deterrent effect by increasing transparency of violators of the Biological Weapons Convention.
    1. 4. Proprietary information must be protected.
      Inspections must not be used for industrial espionage. Disclosure of information during an inspection by an international biological weapons inspection team must not be construed as public disclosure that would preclude obtaining patent protection. Under current international patent law such revelations to an inspection team could well prevent obtaining patent protection. The international inspection teams would have to be charged with maintaining confidential information disclosed to them, and nations sending inspectors would have to be held accountable and in violation of the Biological Weapons Convention with appropriate sanctions in place, should their inspectors not hold in confidence proprietary information. Greater openness can be expected if mechanisms are in place to protect proprietary information.
    1. 5. Incentives for scientific discovery must not be removed.
      When academic laboratories become subject to inspections, there should be protective mechanisms to ensure that incentives for research and developmental activities are not removed. The quest for being first with a new discovery is an important motivating factor in academia. For academics, some experiments are not publicly revealed until the research is completed so that students can claim originality in their dissertations, and faculty can receive credit for specific advances in the state of knowledge.
    1. 6. Lists of equipment and organisms cannot adequately define the scope of appropriate surveillance for compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention.
      Laminar flow hoods, fermentors, and freeze dryers are examples of equipment that are found in many microbiological laboratories as well as in numerous other facilities. BL2 and BL3 facilities are found at most universities. These are not specific to biological weapons research development. The presence of such equipment has limited significance in identifying biological warfare verification. All clinical and pathology laboratories work with pathogens and exercise appropriate safety containment practices. Definitive lists of pathogens are virtually impossible to establish and maintain. Basing verification on defined lists will either encompass too many or too few organisms. The real concern should be the potential of organisms for use in biological weapon systems, not the manner in which the organisms were made. For this reason, recombinant DNA research should not be singled out for special oversight. It is necessary to define the characteristics of pathogens of concern relative to their potential uses as biological weapons. Invasiveness and toxigenicity are among the most critical features of concern.