Crucial Guidance: A Code of Conduct for Biodefense Scientists

Article excerpt

When representatives of up to 155 states-parties meet in Geneva from November 20 to December 8 to consider ways to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), they are likely to express support for the promotion and creation of "codes of conduct" These ethical principles are intended to increase scientists' awareness and accountability and reduce the risk that biological research and development could be misused for biological weapons. Yet, producing concrete guidelines for scientists involved in such a broad research area has proved difficult. For example, a June 2005 BWC meeting of experts charged with addressing the adoption of codes of conduct for scientists did not produce any concrete actions.1

In fact, it is not realistic to believe that a single broad code can be enacted. States-parties negotiators would be better off focusing on creating a narrower set of guidelines and appropriate oversight mechanisms that would govern a far smaller group of scientists in national biodefense research and development programs, including programs for bioterrorism preparedness and protection. These guidelines could be incorporated into and complement an already existing set of politically binding confidence-building measures, an annual set of national declarations that seeks to build transparency in fields related to the BWC.

Biodefense and the BWC

Although outlawing offensive biological weapons activities, the BWC permits biodefense research and development to develop antidotes and other means of countering biological weapons threats. Yet, the boundary between defensive and offensive biological weapons programs can be hazy. Because it is impossible to know which threats will actually materialize, scientists might carry out research and development activities that arguably could contribute to offensive biological weapons programs.

Moreover, because determining the intentions of other states or nonstate actors is inherently problematic, many intelligence evaluations focus on worst-case scenarios of others' capabilities. This, in turn, can result in a practically unlimited number of threats and an open-ended demand for resources to evaluate and meet them, especially with regard to possible threats posed by nonstate actors. For example, scientists might develop and test pathogenic strains with modified characteristics, such as resistance to multiple antibiotics or vaccines; or they might replicate, develop, or test new biological munitions or different methods for delivering them. Such activities or the suspicion that they are taking place inevitably cause states to worry that others are carrying out inappropriate research.

These concerns have grown in recent years as a number of states have expanded their biodefense work. US funding for bioweapons prevention and defense increased dramatically after the September 11 terrorist attacks, from $1.6 billion to more than $8 billion requested for fiscal year 2007, which begins October 1. All told, 11 federal departments and agencies have spent more than $36 billion since 2001.2 While spending at the Department of Defense has increased slightly,3 spending on civil biodefense programs has soared from $414 million in fiscal year 2001 to a requested $7.6 billion in fiscal year 2005."

Advocacy groups have also raised concerns in recent years about pending congressional legislation to establish a new Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) that would serve as a single point of authority within the Department of Health and Human Services for implementing biodefense programs. These groups have criticized provisions in some versions of the legislation to exempt the agency from some Freedom of Information Act provisions requiring public disclosure of the programs. As of July, Congress was still crafting final language on a bill to establish BARDA.5

This massive investment in all aspects of biodefense and protection against bioterrorism is unique for the United States. …