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Commentary | 27 April 2020

COVID-19 shows that the Biological Weapons Convention must be strengthened

Image of Carlo Trezza

Carlo Trezza |Former Ambassador to the Conference on Disarmament, Former Chairman of the Missile Technology Control Regime

Arms Control United Nations WMDs Global Security

The US Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee Chairman Mark Milley recently declared that US intelligence is taking a “hard look” at whether the coronavirus originated in a Wuhan research lab rather than in an open-air market. Meanwhile, US Republican Senator Tom Cotton has hinted that the outbreak might have come from a weapons programme.

Such allegations, which have been floated since the early days of the pandemic, have been vigorously denied by the Chinese authorities and have not been scientifically substantiated. But uncertainties surrounding the origins of the pandemic remind us of the dual nature, civilian and military, of biological sciences and their inherent weapons potential.


Since antiquity, biological agents and toxins have been considered as possible instruments of war. They could still be part of the military arsenals of some countries. Together with nuclear and chemical weapons, they are weapons of mass destruction – weapons that can cause catastrophic effects worldwide.

In 1925, in the aftermath of the First World War, during which chemical weapons were widely used, a Protocol was negotiated in Geneva banning the use of such weapons. Biological weapons were also included, probably due to the appalling “Spanish” flu pandemic which caused millions of deaths between 1918 and 1920. Mainly motivated by humanitarian considerations, the ban only prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons in war, not their possession nor their production. The international community had to wait until 1972 for the achievement of a total biological weapons ban through the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and until 1993 for a chemical weapons ban through the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Under the Biological Weapons Convention states undertook “never in any circumstances to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain” biological weapons or their means of delivery. They also undertook to destroy all the weapons in their possession. To support the implementation of the BWC, in 1990 the Australia Group (a multilateral regime to prevent the proliferation and export of chemical weapons) extended its provisions to include biological weapons. And in 2004 a binding resolution of the UN Security Council (UNSCR 1540) became a key tool in preventing weapons of mass destruction (including biological ones) from falling into the hands of terrorist groups.


To this day, the BWC remains the pillar of international biological arms control. It has undoubtedly contributed to international peace and security. But the Convention is unable to verify and deal with violations. And it has other shortcomings:

  • In response to a perceived violation, states under the BWC only have the choice of consulting with one another or of lodging a complaint with the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) in the hope of securing an enforceable UNSC Resolution with the consensus of all five permanent members of the Council (P5). A state can also appeal to the International Court of Justice but not all states are legally bound by the BWC nor have they necessarily all accepted the compulsory jurisdiction of the ICJ in all legal disputes.
  • There is no standing body to ensure the implementation of the BWC. At present, this function is performed by a Review Conference, which only takes place once every five years, and through periodic meetings of member states and of experts. Since 2007, a small Implementation Support Unit (ISU) has been put in place. It has performed efficiently but its mandate and staffing (mostly financed by the European Union) are too limited.
  • The Convention lacks verification and inspection capabilities. After lengthy negotiations, an initiative to equip the BWC with a verification protocol was in the end wrecked by the United States at the 2002 BWC Review Conference.
  • 14 countries have still not ratified the BWC, including states in regions of major tension.

In short, the present international regime is inadequate for handling a biological weapons crisis and addressing its humanitarian and legal consequences.


The following measures to strengthen the regime should be considered:

  • In the absence of a standing international body to oversee implementation of the BWC, the option of placing biological weapons under the jurisdiction of the existing Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) should be explored. There are already instances, such as the 1925 Protocol, the Australia Group, the UNSCOM and UNMOVIC Commissions dealing with weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and UNSC Resolution 1540, in which biological and chemical weapons are or have been dealt with jointly. The 2016 BWC Review Conference noted “the increasing convergence of biology and chemistry and its possible challenges and opportunities for the implementation of the Conventions”.
  • More generally, despite the failure in 2002, the idea of equipping the BWC with a verification or investigation mechanism should be revisited. Even if, as some believe, verification cannot fully ensure the implementation of the BWC, that must not become a pretext for doing nothing. The precedents of UNSCOM and UNMOVIC in Iraq show that bio-verification is at least feasible. By defeating the verification initiative in 2002, the United States deprived itself and the rest of the international community of a tool that would have been useful today for investigating the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. Relying purely on US national intelligence is not credible internationally.
  • A concerted effort must be made to encourage strategically significant countries such as Egypt, Israel, and Syria to join the rest of the world in renouncing these hideous weapons, which are capable of indiscriminately killing thousands upon thousands of civilians. They are weapons of terror with no strategic value.
  • The next Biological Weapons Convention Review Conference will meet in 2021. The present pandemic must be the catalyst for strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

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