Received wisdom is that biological agents are an unattractive weapon, in part because of the perceived risks involved in their production, and also because of the difficulty of targeting particular groups or populations. But this is not an area for complacency. A report commissioned last year by the U.S. Department of Defense highlights the “almost limitless list of malicious activities that could potentially be pursued with biology” and draws parallels with the importance of advances in physics and chemistry during the Cold War. (1)
State-sponsored development of biological weapons has broadly ceased since the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) entered into force in 1975. However, the BWC has weaknesses. First, it is plagued by financial woes, struggling even to sustain a modest meeting program. (2) Second, the only mechanism for demonstrating compliance is a system of annual “confidence-building measures”- but no more than half the signatories submit such measures in any given year, and a third have never done so. Third, the BWC has limited application to cutting-edge research – a growing problem, given revolutionary biological advances. (3)
Even if restraint on the part of state actors could be guaranteed, biological weapons still have attractions for malicious non-state actors. The current state of microbial forensics would make it difficult to reliably attribute a biological attack, and the impact could be incalculable: the direct effects -fatalities and injuries – would be compounded by potentially grave societal and political disruption.
This article is excerpted from the 14th edition of The Global Risks Report, prepared by the World Economic Forum (WEF) with the support of Marsh & McLennan Companies and other partners.
(1) National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2018. Biodefense in the Age of Synthetic Biology. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/24890
(2) Millett, K. 2017. “Financial Woes Spell Trouble for the Biological Weapons Convention”. 1 June 2017. Health Security 15 (3). http://doi.org/10.1089/hs.2017.0030
(3) Lentzos, F. 2018. “How Do We Control Dangerous Biological Research?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 12 April 2018. https://thebulletin.org/2018/04/how-do-we-control-dangerous-biological-research/