Biotech Breakthroughs May Put Chemical Arms in Easier Reach

A damaged microscope seen in a Gaza Strip laboratory caught in crossfire between Palestinian fighters in 2007. An international panel said it is still impossible to fully determine how future technologies may make chemical-warfare materials easier to produce and harder to regulate.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
July 3, 2014, 7:28 a.m.

An in­ter­na­tion­al team wants to closely watch how fu­ture tech­no­lo­gies could make the world’s dead­li­est pois­ons easi­er to pro­duce and harder to reg­u­late.

It is still im­possible to know how an ar­ray of emer­ging tech­no­lo­gies — such as cus­tom-built pro­teins and mi­cro­scop­ic con­tain­ers — will af­fect cap­ab­il­it­ies to man­u­fac­ture and de­liv­er leth­al chem­ic­als banned un­der in­ter­na­tion­al law, sci­entif­ic ad­visers to the Or­gan­iz­a­tion for the Pro­hib­i­tion of Chem­ic­al Weapons said in a new as­sess­ment.

In­ter­na­tion­al au­thor­it­ies should con­tin­ue mon­it­or­ing the po­ten­tial of bi­o­tech­no­logy to af­fect en­force­ment of the Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion, even though de­vel­op­ments rel­ev­ant to the pro­duc­tion of banned chem­ic­al agents “are cur­rently lim­ited,” says the fi­nal re­port by a work­ing group of the OP­CW Sci­entif­ic Ad­vis­ory Board.

Des­pite the field’s present lim­it­a­tions, “bio­medi­ated pro­cesses might still be ef­fect­ive for pro­du­cing weapon­iz­able quant­it­ies of tox­ins that are leth­al,” the re­port warns. “New pro­duc­tion pro­cesses, com­bined with de­vel­op­ments in drug dis­cov­ery and de­liv­ery, could be ex­ploited in the de­vel­op­ment of new tox­ic chem­ic­als that could be used as weapons.”

The pan­el ad­ded that the agency’s man­date hems in its en­force­ment au­thor­ity, po­ten­tially com­plic­at­ing any glob­al ef­fort to over­see bio­lo­gic­al in­nov­a­tions that fall in a gray area of in­ter­na­tion­al law.

The Chem­ic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion may not re­quire mem­ber na­tions to re­port “many fa­cil­it­ies tak­ing ad­vant­age of bio­lo­gic­ally me­di­ated pro­duc­tion pro­cesses,” the ad­vis­ory pan­el said in its re­port. The group ad­ded that the treaty ex­empts nu­mer­ous activ­it­ies that “may be sci­en­tific­ally jus­ti­fied” for peace­ful pur­poses, such as pro­du­cing bio­fuel or al­co­hol­ic drinks.

The re­port also calls for routine con­sulta­tions with of­fi­cials re­spons­ible for over­see­ing a sep­ar­ate in­ter­na­tion­al ban on bio­lo­gic­al arms. OP­CW Dir­ect­or Gen­er­al Ah­met Üzüm­cü three years ago dir­ec­ted his agency’s sci­entif­ic ad­visers to con­sider how the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s en­force­ment tasks may be af­fected by the on­go­ing “con­ver­gence” of chem­ic­al and bio­lo­gic­al sci­ences.

The pan­el ad­vised Üzüm­cü to dis­cuss con­ver­gence is­sues with over­seers of the Bio­lo­gic­al Weapons Con­ven­tion.

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