The History and New Directions of Biodefense

Dr. Matthew Meselson, a Harvard biologist and longtime advocate for biological disarmament, (and a  member of FAS’s Board of Sponsors) spoke Tuesday, June 26th  at a briefing hosted by FAS in Washington, D.C. on the recent history of biodefense and the need for oversight on biodefense efforts.

“Infective agents don’t stop at frontiers. They don’t have passports,” Meselson said. A biological attack against any nation, or a virulent disease outbreak can threaten the entire world.

Though President Richard Nixon renounced biological weapons on November 25, 1969, the decision had begun several years earlier, notably in 1963 when Secretary of State Dean Rusk began asking about  the potential for banning biological weapons.

In 1968, the Department of Defense looked deeper into the nation’s biodefense and BW programs and at first proposed a stronger BW and chemical weapon programs. At the time, the U.S.’s BCW programs were too small to be viable.

“Why would you want something that was small and not very good? The likely thing is that you would want something that is good,” Meselson said.

At about the same time, DoD officials in the Office of Systems Analysis investigated the strategic use of biological weapons and the threat of proliferation. They found there were no potential applications of lethal biological weapons that were preferred to the use of nuclear weapons. And the scenario for non-lethal biological weapons was so unlikely that non-lethal biological weapons were not worth it.

“It was a combination of considering military utility and the danger of proliferation,” Meselson said, which convinced the Office of Systems Analysis to argue against BW.

With Nixon taking office in 1969, the end of American use of biological weapons seemed in sight, but then came the question of toxins. Toxins, poisons produced by living cells, seemed to present a loophole to the convention because they could be classified as chemical or biological agents.

The National Security Council proposed three options, the first, advocated by the Joint Chiefs, would have declared toxins as a chemical agent, and therefore the U.S. produce them as it could any other chemical weapon.

The second option, recommended by Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, would have ruled that toxins were created from organisms were biological agents and not used, but those that could be made in a laboratory from chemical means would be allowed.

The third option would determine that toxins were biological agents and the U.S. would not use them, which is the option Nixon ultimately took, despite the previous recommendations.

“I argued that we didn’t need toxins. We had good things in the form of nerve gas — much better, better tested,” Meselson said, also explaining that embracing toxins would have ruined the credibility of the president.

The Biological Weapons Convention, brought to Congress in 1970, wasn’t ratified by the U.S. until 1975, (even though the U.S. had already renounced BW), because the U.S. was worried that “the possibility that it would gradually be eroded by the development of fancier and fancier so-called non lethal chemical weapons,” Meselson said.

“The idea of nonlethal war in any case is a silly myth,” Meselson explained, saying that it asked soldiers to place themselves in greater danger to save the lives of enemy soldiers. “The only way to have non-lethal warfare is to get all of the lethal weapons off the battlefield.”

However, after the BWC, the Soviet Union dramatically increased their BW production, despite having agreed to the convention.

Since then, biological weapons have lost their strategic use. Biodefense efforts now focus more on natural diseases.

“There are emerging infections. Nature is out there trying to get us, but fortunately we’re out there trying to get nature and so far, in recent times, we’ve been winning,” Meselson said.

To combat this threat, Meselson argued for better oversight of departments by utilizing external departments and agencies to ensure that funds and focus are optimally directed, though he acknowledged the difficulty of interdepartment oversight, “Would you want your neighbor to come in and inspect your garbage?”

He provided a few solutions or conditions that might “sugarcoat” oversight and make it more bearable, and eventually more effective, such as having an official from the State Department sitting in on the Department of Homeland Security’s Review Board, but reporting to the Secretary of Homeland Security, not the Secretary of State.

For external inspection to work it must be implemented intelligently and gently, Meselson explained, so that it might grow to be something truly productive and not a roadblock.

When asked about how biodefense oversight could help prevent outbreaks of diseases like H1N1, Meselson explained the issue really involved scientific oversight (more than biodefense), but scientists should investigate “sentinel” tests that can give an early warning on mutated diseases.

Though it was explained that Syria lacks biological weapons, Meselson also expressed doubt that Syria would use chemical weapons on its own people, “most countries should figure if they use poison gas all hell is going to break lose.”

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