Bio-weapons experts call for tighter controls as Covid highlights risk

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Experts convening in Geneva for an annual Biological Weapons Convention gathering have called for tougher powers to enforce the treaty as the Covid-19 pandemic sharpens global awareness of biological threats.

“The pandemic provided stark illustration that the inevitable uncertainty surrounding the origin of biological events can fuel speculation and mistrust that can have cascading global effects,” academics and research institutions, including the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the British non-profit VERTIC, said in a joint statement on Monday at the start of the eight-day meeting, attended by representatives of the 183 BWC members and bio-weapons experts.

“The BWC is well positioned to establish a trusted clearing house for gathering and analysing information related to the origin of significant biological events,” they added.

Twenty months after the first cases of Covid-19 were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the origins of the virus remain hotly debated. A World Health Organization fact-finding mission to the city in January 2021 was inconclusive and criticised for having gained limited access to Chinese facilities and data.

A US intelligence probe ordered by President Joe Biden in May into whether Sars-Cov-2 — the virus that causes Covid-19 — emerged naturally or could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology failed to reach a definitive conclusion. Beijing has rejected any suggestion of a leak from the laboratory.

Diplomatic sensitivities would prevent any formal reference to the so-called lab-leak theory at the Geneva conference, but the reluctance of Chinese officials to give inspectors more access was undermining faith in Beijing’s commitment to the BWC, said Filippa Lentzos, a social scientist at King’s College London who is researching biological agent threats.

“The whole saga will have implications on confidence in China’s commitments, but none of that will be aired publicly,” said Lentzos, who will be attending the meeting.

Researchers work at the Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017. Beijing has denied the Sars-Cov-2 virus originated from the facility © Shepherd Hou/EPA

Signatories to the BWC, comprising both governments and independent experts, meet regularly under the auspices of the UN to review the text of the treaty. The convention bans the development, stockpiling, transfer and use of biological weapons but does not include formal measures to ensure compliance by member states.

It covers dual use research — technology that can be used for either defensive or offensive purposes — but gives governments room for manoeuvre. Conducting such activity for offensive military use is prohibited, while research and development for defence or prophylactic purposes is allowed.

Although it remains unproven that Sars-Cov-2 emerged from a research facility rather than naturally, experts are calling for a global mechanism to provide independent, transparent and accredited fact-checking of major biological events.

They argue that little is known about the biological research conducted by different governments because the BWC is too weak. When the convention was crafted, James Leonard, the US chief negotiator, described it as a “gentleman’s agreement”.

Andy Weber, assistant secretary of defence for nuclear, chemical and biological defence programmes under President Barack Obama, said the convention lacked any mechanism for enforcement or the verification and inspection of biological research.

“There was an effort in the late 1990s, early 2000s, to add a verification provision based on the success of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has very good verification and inspection capabilities . . . but that was blocked, mostly by the United States,” he said.

Staff at the Wuhan Institute have in the past expressed concern about some of the research conducted there, particularly where it may have intersected with work by the Chinese military.

Artist’s impression of the Sars-Cov-2 virus
Artist’s impression of the Sars-Cov-2 virus. The pandemic has sharpened global awareness of biological threats © National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

During a December 2011 panel held by the US government’s National Institutes of Health, Yuan Zhiming, a microbiologist at the Wuhan Institute, warned: “In China, there is no regulation on the identification of dual use research, and there’s no regulation on the classification of research and classification of information.”

There were “very legitimate questions around the dual use of what they’re doing in this [Wuhan] facility, but again it’s not implying they’re necessarily doing anything in contravention of the BWC”, said Lentzos.

“What is legitimate is drawing attention to Chinese military involvement in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, both in terms of leadership, in terms of co-authorship on publications, in terms of the funding going into all those things, which is a lot of stuff we don’t know about and the Chinese are not being very open or transparent about.”

The Wuhan Institute did not respond to a request for comment.

China’s foreign ministry told the Financial Times that it remained committed to protecting the convention and said the US had undermined efforts to establish a mechanism for biological weapons inspections when it withdrew from talks in the early 2000s on broadening the BWC’s powers following concerns by US pharmaceutical groups.

“Since the US thinks it is practical to inspect Wuhan labs, then it has no reason to oppose [such a mechanism] and has even less reason to reject inspections of Fort Detrick,” the ministry said, referring to the home of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland.

In response to calls for an independent inspection of the Wuhan Institute, China has repeatedly suggested, without providing credible evidence, that Sars-Cov-2 may have originated at the US facility.

“Fort Detrick keeps a large number of viruses that seriously threaten human safety, and there are many security risks and loopholes at Fort Detrick,” a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry told a press conference in June.

Additional reporting Christian Shepherd in Beijing

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