Part 2. A Biological Weapons Convention
Amid great pushback over US conduct in Vietnam, and seeking to burnish his presidency, President Nixon announced to the world in November 1969 that the US was going to end its biowarfare program (but not the chemical program). Following pointed reminders that Nixon had not eschewed the use of toxins, in February 1970 Nixon announced we would also get rid of our toxin weapons also, which included snake, snail, frog, fish, bacterial, and fungal toxins that could be used for assassinations and other purposes.
It has been claimed that Nixon’s declarations resulted from careful calculations that the US was far ahead technically of most other nations in its chemical and nuclear weapons. But biological weapons were considered the “poor man’s atomic bomb” and required much less sophistication to produce. Therefore, the US was not far ahead in the biological weapons arena. By banning this class of weapon, the US would gain strategically.
Nixon told the world that the US would initiate an international treaty to prevent the use of these weapons ever again. And we did so: the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, or Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) for short, which entered into force in 1975.
But in 1973 genetic engineering (recombinant DNA) was discovered by Americans Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen, which changed the biological warfare calculus. Now the US had regained a technological advantage for this type of endeavor.
The Biological Weapons Convention established conferences to be held every 5 years to strengthen the treaty. The expectation was that these would add a method to call for ‘challenge inspections’ to prevent nations from cheating and would add sanctions (punishments) if nations failed to comply with the treaty. However, since 1991 the US has consistently blocked the addition of protocols that would have an impact on cheating. By now, everyone accepts that cheating occurs and is likely widespread.
A leak in an anthrax production facility in Sverdlovsk, USSR in 1979 caused the deaths of about 60 people. While the USSR tried a sloppy cover-up, blaming contaminated black market meat, this was a clear BWC violation to all those knowledgeable about anthrax.
US experiments with anthrax production during the Clinton administration, detailed by Judith Miller et al. in the 2001 book Germs, were also thought by experts to have transgressed the BWC.
It has taken over 40 years, but in 2022 all declared stocks of chemical weapons had been destroyed by the USA, by Russia, and the other 191 member nation signatories. The chemical weapons convention does include provisions for surprise inspections and sanctions.
It is now 2023, and during the 48 years the Biological Weapons Convention has been in force the wall it was supposed to build against the development, production, and use of biological weapons has been steadily eroded. Meanwhile, especially since the 2001 anthrax letters, nations (with the US at the forefront) have been building up their “biodefense” and “pandemic preparedness” capacities.
Under the guise of preparing their defenses against biowarfare and pandemics, nations have conducted “dual-use” (both offensive and defensive) research and development, which has led to the creation of more deadly and more transmissible microorganisms. And employing new verbiage to shield this effort from scrutiny, biological warfare research was renamed as “gain-of-function” research.