US Stands By the Chemical Weapons Convention

While the Trump Administration has retreated from negotiated arms control agreements in many areas ranging from nuclear weapons to anti-personnel landmines, the US is still committed to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which generally prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons.

Last week the State Department certified to Congress — as a required condition of continued US participation in the CWC — that the consortium of CWC member countries known as the Australia Group “remains a viable mechanism for limiting the spread of chemical and biological weapons-related materials and technology.”

“Australia Group members continue to maintain controls over the export of toxic chemicals and their precursors, dual-use processing equipment, human, animal, and plant pathogens and toxins with potential biological weapons applications, and dual-use biological equipment…,” wrote Christopher A. Ford, Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Non-Proliferation.

“The United States remains fully committed to complete destruction of its entire [chemical weapons] stockpile, consistent with the Convention’s imperatives of public safety, environmental protection, and international transparency and oversight,” according to the State Department’s August 2019 report on Arms Control Compliance.

So far, over 90 percent of the total U.S. chemical weapons stockpile has been destroyed, mostly by chemically neutralizing the weapons, but also partly through controlled detonations.

As noted in the latest annual report on the U.S. Chemical Demilitarization Program, there were 19 reported incidents of chemical weapon agents leaking in 2019, though the Army said that no public exposure resulted.

The report said that the Department of Defense “expects to complete destruction operations by December 31, 2023,” which is the deadline set by Congress.

Synthetic Biology and the Chem/Bio Threat

Synthetic biology, a set of technologies related to the design and fabrication of biological systems, poses an emerging hazard but also provides the tools to mitigate that hazard, according to a new DoD report to Congress on defense against chemical and biological (CB) weapons.

The new report “assesses DoD’s overall readiness to fight and win in a CB warfare environment.”

“Rapid advancements in technology are making it easier for an adversary, whether State or non-State, to develop chemical and biological weapons. This includes threats from non-State actor groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and emerging threats like the misuse of synthetic biology.”

Although the technologies that comprise synthetic biology represent a growing threat, “we cannot look to constrain the technologies themselves as a means of risk mitigation, or we risk stalling our own research and development (R&D) programs that use those technologies to develop life-saving countermeasures.”

“Synthetic biology is critically important to the development of medical countermeasures (MCMs), detection technologies, materials for protective equipment, and other technologies with applicability to CBR [chemical / biological / radiological] defense,” the report said.

“The Department must be positioned to both leverage synthetic biology opportunities as well as address the potential for nefarious use of biotechnology, such as enhancing select agents or the engineering of novel pathogens.”

In fact, “the majority of CB [defense] programs utilize some aspect of synthetic biology. Current examples include the development of Filovirus vaccines and therapeutics, the development of the recombinant plague vaccine, novel approaches to overcome antibiotic resistance, and the rapid development of monoclonal antibody therapies.”

See Department of Defense 2017 Annual Report to Congress on Chemical and Biological Defense Program, March 2017, released under the Freedom of Information Act on May 25, 2017.

The Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP) acquired nearly 200,000 smallpox vaccines and more than 500,000 anthrax vaccines, DoD reported. The military services distributed and administered them “as needed to support operations.”

The Program has also contributed to development of medical countermeasures against other CB threats.

“The CBDP-supported Ebola vaccine was granted Breakthrough Product Status by the FDA and European Medicines Agency (EMA),” the DoD report said. “This vaccine is the first to have demonstrated efficacy against Ebola in humans.”

However, funding constraints limit such progress. “The combination of evolving CB threats, reduced budgets, and uncertain fiscal futures forces the CBDP to focus its limited resources to address the highest priorities and greatest risks.” (See, relatedly, “Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts Trouble Bioterrorism Experts” by Emily Baumgaertner, New York Times, May 28.)

The DoD report emphasized that “No individuals have been used as subjects of any CB agent tests in the United States since 1975.”

“Human biological agent testing ended on November 25, 1969, and human chemical agent testing ended on July 25, 1975. The Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs (OASD(HA)) continues to work with the Department of Veterans Affairs to identify and locate previous human test subjects so they can receive appropriate attention.”

Treatment of Chemical Warfare Casualties

“Chemical warfare agents remain a significant and continuing threat to military forces,” according to a newly updated manual jointly issued by the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

Islamic State fighters in Iraq set fire to a chemical factory south of Mosul, Pentagon spokesmen said last week, generating a cloud of sulfur dioxide that passed over a U.S. base in the region. (“Islamic State Burns Sulfur Stocks Near Mosul, Creating Hazard for Troops, Locals,” Wall Street Journal, October 22.)

“Sulfur dioxide is injurious to the eyes and to the respiratory tract, where it acts primarily as a central pulmonary toxicant at low to moderate doses, but may also exhibit peripheral effects (pulmonary edema) at high doses,” explained the newly released manual, which also discussed protection, diagnosis and treatment for SO2 exposure. See Multi-Service Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Treatment of Chemical Warfare Agent Casualties and Conventional Military Chemical Injuries, ATP 4-02.85, August 2016.

Another new Pentagon publication described the role of the role of the U.S. military in responding to, and mitigating, the effects of unconventional weapons and hazardous materials, whether induced deliberately or accidentally. See Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Response, Joint Publication 3-41, September 9, 2016.

Report Details DoD Chem/Bio Defense Programs

Last year the Food and Drug Administration approved a new drug to be used as a countermeasure against Yersinia pestis, the biological agent that causes bubonic plague. The drug was developed with funding from the Department of Defense Chemical and Biological Defense Program (CBDP).

DoD described its research and development activities on defense against chemical and biological threats in a new 2016 annual report to Congress, which was released today under the Freedom of Information Act.

DoD’s work in this area is intended to provide “the necessary capabilities to deter, prevent, protect from, mitigate, respond to, and recover from” the use of chemical or biological (CB) agents in warfare.

“The DoD faces CB threats that are complex, diverse, and pose enduring risks to the Joint Force and Homeland,” the new report said. “The variety, origin, and severity of these threats continues to grow while resources shrink.”

DoD said it performed basic research in genetic engineering and nanoelectromechanical systems related to defense against CB threats, and supported the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, among other initiatives.

Although DoD conducts or supports clinical trials of new medications, “No individuals have been used as subjects of any CB agent tests in the U.S. since 1975,” the reportsaid. “Human biological agent testing ended on November 25, 1969, and human chemical agent testing ended on July 25, 1975.”

But program safety is a continuing challenge. As previously reported, last year “the DoD became aware that viable Bacillus anthracis spores, believed to have been inactivated, had been shipped from a DoD laboratory. The DoD rapidly responded by implementing a moratorium on the production, handling, testing, and shipment of inactivated anthrax.”

The scope of chem/bio defense research is expected to shrink due to budget reductions. “The combination of evolving CB threats, reduced budgets, and uncertain fiscal futures forces the CBDP to focus its limited resources to address the highest priorities and greatest risks,” the report said. “This environment translates into increasingly complex program management decisions with no margins for error due to a lack of sufficient and predictable resources.”

The latest reported use of chlorine gas by Syrian government forces in the city of Aleppo is a reminder that chemical warfare is not simply a relic of a primitive past, but an actual reality today.

Before Eliminating Syria’s Chemical Weapons, One Must Find Syria’s Chemical Weapons

Most of the world (including the U.S.) seems to be relieved now that there is affirmative progress towards eliminating Syria’s ghastly chemical weapon (CW) stockpiles, thereby avoiding (at least for now) a military strike that no one really wanted to undertake.  The Syrian government has announced that it will soon join the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  Joining the OPCW will immediately trigger an obligation on Syria’s part to issue a written declaration identifying the number and types of CWs it currently possesses.  With history as a guide, we can safely predict that it will be an incomplete and inaccurate declaration.  That is true even if Syria fully intends to come clean regarding its CW stockpile.  This is the point where good intentions can go awry.  The problem here is that no one really trusts Syria.  The consequences of such mistrust are informed by experiences in Iraq and Libya over the last 20 years.

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FAS Launches Online Chemical Weapons Convention Archive to Mark 2nd Review Conference

FAS just launched an online compilation of more than 500 documents on the US ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The Archive (/blog/cw) includes a timeline of CWC negotiations, a history of its signing and ratification, and current news and commentary on the CWC.

In addition to the documents, Cheryl Vos, FAS Biology Research Associate, will report daily from The Hague during the Second Review Conference, 7 – 18 April 2008, on the proceedings, plenary sessions and open forum.

cheney letterThe online archive’s “Document of the Day” feature will kick off with a letter submitted by former Secretary of Defense and current Vice President Dick Cheney to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The letter expresses Cheney’s deep opposition to U.S. ratification of the Chemical Weapons Convention and was read into the record by former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger who, along with fellow former Secretaries of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Caspar Weinberger, was present at the Committee hearing to provide testimony against the CWC. /cw/cwc_archive/cheneyletter_4-8-97.pdf

The CWC entered into force on April 29, 1997. The archive highlights accomplishments over the past 11 years, and arguments made for and against US ratification in Congress.

Many of the letters, petitions and reports have not been previously available online.

Visit the Chemical Weapons Convention Archive at /blog/cw/.

Iraqi Chemical Weapons Found…at the UN? Don’t Panic!

Hey, we found the Iraqi WMD’s. They were being stored at the UN! I am sure it will be all over the news by tonight, but it is astonishing how fast the press was all over what really amounts to an act of stupidity, and most certainly not a large public hazard. Sure, one can’t even begin to fathom how disorganized the UN must be to actually lose track of vials that contain chemical weapons (even small amounts), but do a few handful of containers with dangerous chemicals that have been stored in a cabinet for over a decade deserve to be a headline story?

The details are not completely clear yet, but it appears as if there were only a few containers of which, at least one contained liquid phosgene. The UN staff learned of the vials on Friday while they were cleaning out storage cabinets, but it took them until Wednesday to figure out what they were, report them and get them out of the building. These containers have been around since 1996 and are not an imminent threat to public safety because of the small amount of agent reported to be in question.

So we are left with the bizarre fact that someone thought it would be OK to store them in a cabinet at the UN and then somehow they lost track of them. It’s embarrassing to the UN, for sure. Fodder for the Tonight Show monologue? Absolutely. The point should be made that chemicals far more dangerous than a few vials of phosgene (or whatever other chemical weapon they contained) are trucked in and out of cities and stored in large quantities every day. It is the aura of their previous purpose that the press finds sexy, not the true threat. Perhaps it is the culture of fear and panic that we have cultivated in the US that I abhor, but I would much rather spend my time avoiding stories about Lindsey and Paris than another over-hyped story about terrorism or media-perceived danger to the citizenry.