U.S. Lays out Plans to Address Biothreats

Article excerpt

The Obama administration unveiled a revised U.S. strategy for dealing with biological weapons proliferation and terrorism Dec. 9, altering the Bush administration's approach in some ways but keeping the focus on the threat from bioterrorism and reaffirming the decision not to pursue a verification protocol to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Some diplomats questioned the emphases of the U.S. approach and the casting of the decision on the verification protocol.

Details of the U.S. approach came in the 23-page "National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats" and in remarks by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Ellen O. Tauscher. She delivered the remarks during the annual meeting of parties to the BWC Dec. 7-11 in Geneva.

In summarizing the strategy, Tauscher said one key element was international cooperation "to combat infectious diseases regardless of their cause," that is, whether they are "of natural, accidental or deliberate origin."

She also said the United States would "work toward establishing and reinforcing norms against the misuse of the life sciences." Another piece of the strategy is to "implement a coordinated approach to influence, identify, inhibit, and interdict those who seek to misuse scientific progress to harm innocent people," she said.

When the Obama administration came into office, it conducted a review and found that the United States did not have in place a "comprehensive strategy to address gaps in our efforts to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons and scientific abuse," Tauscher said. The strategy document emphasizes that nonproliferation efforts are not intended to interfere with legitimate uses of life sciences. "Consistent with [the BWC] and other obligations under domestic law and international agreements, we will seek to pursue policies and actions that promote the global availability of life science discoveries and technologies for peaceful purposes," the document says.

Article 10 of the BWC establishes the right of all parties to "the fullest possible exchange of equipment, materials and scientific and technological information for the use of bacteriological (biological) agents and toxins for peaceful purposes." Article 3 bans any kind of assistance relating to "agents, toxins, weapons, equipment or means of delivery" that are part of a biological weapons program.

The Obama strategy document gives credit to the Bush administration for having "significantly expanded" programs to "recognize and respond to acts of bioterrorism or other outbreaks of infectious disease" since 2001, when, shortly after the September 11 attacks, anthrax-filled letters were delivered to congressional offices and media outlets. The document says, however, that work on preventing such threats "has received comparatively limited policy focus or substantive guidance at the National level" and needs to be increased, in particular by greater efforts to "reduce the likelihood that such an attack might occur."

The strategy cites a range of methods for combating biological threats, including "technology watch" efforts that "provide cutting edge insight and analysis" by experts in the relevant scientific fields, export controls, and law enforcement.

In a Dec. 24 e-mail to Arms Control Today, a diplomat from a key country in the Nonaligned Movement (NAM) said the new strategy puts too much weight on "law enforcement and Article III," considering that "the response to bioattacks (terrorism or otherwise) is based on good primary health care systems, which is more related to Article X."

Varying Risk Assessments

In her remarks, Tauscher said that "while the United States remains concerned about state-sponsored biological warfare and proliferation, we are equally, if not more concerned, about an act of bioterrorism, due to the increased access to advances in the life sciences."

Other diplomats, however, questioned that general emphasis, as well as the specific connection to advances in life sciences. …