Forty years ago today, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, better known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), entered into force. It was the first multilateral treaty to ban an entire category of weapons.
The BWC continues to be an essential element in the international community’s efforts to prohibit and eliminate these weapons, the use of which the treaty declares “would be repugnant to the conscience of mankind.” 173 countries have joined the Convention, a significant accomplishment, but still not enough. Universal membership in the treaty would demonstrate humanity’s consensus that biological weapons are illegitimate and that all states have a responsibility to prevent anyone from obtaining them.
Since the BWC entered into force, the tremendous advances in science and technology that have made it easier to diagnose and treat diseases have also made it easier to develop biological weapons, including by terrorists. The same equipment and technical knowledge used to save lives can also be used to weaponize pathogens. This is not just a theoretical concern. We experienced this horror in 2001 when anthrax was sent in letters to Members of Congress and others, killing six Americans. The threat is continues today, as the technology to develop biological weapons is widespread and disguising such efforts is surprisingly easy.