We Need Biological Verification and Attribution Tools to Combat Disinformation Aimed at International Institutions

The Biological Weapons Convention’s Ninth Review Conference (RevCon) took place under a unique geopolitical storm, as the COVID-19 pandemic raged and the Russian invasion of Ukraine took center stage. Russia’s continued claims of United States-sponsored bioweapons research laboratories in Ukraine only added to the tension. Russia asserted that they had uncovered evidence of offensive biological weapons research underway in Ukrainian labs, supported by the United States, and that the invasion of Ukraine was due to the threat they faced so close to their borders. 

While this story has been repeated countless times to countless audiences – including an Article V consultative meeting and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) as part of an Article VI complaint against the U.S. lodged by Russia, the fact remains that Russia’s assertion is untrue.

The biological laboratories present in Ukraine operate as part of the Department of Defense’s Biological Threat Reduction Program, and are run by Ukrainian scientists charged with detecting and responding to emerging pathogens in the area. Articles V and VI of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) are intended to be invoked when a State Party hopes to resolve a problem of cooperation or report a breach of the Convention, respectively. The Article V formal consultative meeting resulted in no consensus being reached, and the Article VI UNSC meeting rejected Russia’s claims. The lack of consensus during the consultative meeting created a foothold for Russia to continue their campaign of disinformation, and the UNSC meeting only further reinforced it. The Article V and VI clauses are meant to provide some means of mediation and recourse to States Parties in the case of BWC violation. However, in this case they were not invoked in good faith, rather, they were used as a springboard for a sweeping Russian disinformation campaign.

Abusing Behavioral Norms for Political Gain

While Russia’s initial steps of calling for an Article V consultative meeting and an Article VI Security Council investigation do not seem outwardly untoward, Russia’s behavior during and after these proceedings dismissed the claims indicated their deeper purpose. 

Example: Misdirection in Documentation Review

During the RevCon, the Russian delegation often brought up how the results of the UNSC investigation would be described in the final document during the article-by-article review, calling for versions of the document that included more slanted versions of the events. They also continually mentioned the U.S.’ refusal to answer their questions, despite the answers being publicly available on the consultative meeting’s UNODA page, the Russians characterized their repeated mentioning of the UNSC investigation findings as an act of defiant heroism, implying that the U.S. was trying to quash their valid concerns, but that Russia would continue to raise them until the world had gotten the answers it deserved. This narrative directly contradicts the facts of the Article V and VI proceedings. The UNSC saw no need to continue investigating Russia’s claims. 

Example: Side Programming with Questionable Intent 

The Russian delegation also conducted a side event during the BWC dedicated to the outcomes of the consultative meeting. The side event included a short ‘documentary’ of Russian evidence that the U.S.-Ukraine laboratories were conducting biological weapons research. This evidence included footage of pesticide-dispersal drones in a parking lot that were supposedly modified to hold bioweapons canisters, cardboard boxes with USAID stickers on them, and a list of pathogen samples supposedly present that were destroyed prior to filming. When asked about next steps, the Russian delegation made thinly veiled threats to hold larger BWC negotiations hostage, stating that if the U.S. and its allies maintain their position and don’t demonstrate any further interest in continuing dialogue, it would be difficult for the 9th RevCon to reach consensus. 

Example: Misuse of ‘Point of Order’

Russia’s behavior at the 9th RevCon emphasizes the unwitting role international institutions can play as springboards for state-sponsored propaganda and disinformation. 

During opening statements, the Russian delegation continually called a point of order upon any mention of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A point of order allows the delegation to respond to the speaker immediately, effectively interrupting their statement. During the Ukrainian delegation’s opening statement, the Russian delegation called four points of order, citing Ukraine’s “political statements” as disconnected from the BWC discussion. Russia’s use of the rules of procedure to bully other delegations continued – after they concluded a point of order during the NATO delegate’s statement, they called another one almost immediately after the NATO delegate resumed her statement with the singular word, “Russia.” This behavior continued throughout all three weeks of the RevCon. 

Example: Single Vote Disruption Made in Bad Faith

All BWC votes are adopted by consensus, meaning that all states parties have to agree for a decision to be made. While this helps ensure the greatest inclusivity and equality between states parties, as well as promote implementation, it also means that one country can be the ‘spoiler’ and disrupt even widely supported changes. 

For example, in 2001, the United States pulled out of verification mechanism negotiations at the last minute, upending the entire effort. Russia’s behavior in 2022 was similarly disruptive, but made with the goal of subversion. The vote changed how other delegations reacted, as representatives seemed more reluctant to mention the Article V and VI proceedings. The structure of the United Nations as impartial and the BWC as consensus-based means that by their very nature they cannot combat their misuse. Any progress to be had by the BWC relies on states operating in good faith, which is impossible to do when a country has a disinformation agenda.

Thus, the very nature of the UN and associated bodies attenuates their ability to respond to states’ misuse. Russia’s behavior at the 9th RevCon is part of a pattern that shows no signs of slowing down. 

We Need More Sophisticated Biological Verification and Attribution Tools

The actions described above demonstrate the door has been kicked fully open for regimes to use the UN and associated bodies as mouthpieces for state-sponsored propaganda. 

So, it is imperative that 1) more sophisticated biological verification and attribution tools be developed, and 2) the BWC implements a legally binding verification mechanism. 

The development of better verification methods to verify whether biological research is for civil or military purposes will help to remove ambiguity around laboratory activities around the world. It will also make it harder for benign activities to be misidentified as offensive biological weapons activities. 

Further, improved attribution methods will  determine where biological weapons originate from and will further remove ambiguity during a genuine biological attack. 

The development of both these capabilities will strengthen an eventual legally binding verification mechanism. These two changes will also allow Article V consultative meetings and Article VI UNSC meetings to determine the presence of offensive bioweapons research more definitively, thus contributing rather substantively to the strengthening of the convention. As ambiguity around the results of these investigations decreases, so does the space for disinformation to take hold.

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.”

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.

Examining Global Biosecurity Engagement Programs

Global biosecurity engagement programs are designed to prevent the harmful use of biological agents and pathogens. It is difficult to measure the effectiveness of these programs in improving biosecurity given that there have been relatively few attempts to misuse the life sciences. Metrics that focus on outputs (what was done) as opposed to outcomes (the impact of what was done) have not been helpful in determining how these efforts might be improved in the future. As a result, the goals of the programs have traditionally been more quantitative in nature – for example, increasing the number of agents secured and number of scientists engaged. Broadening the scope of biosecurity engagement metrics can help align program goals with a more qualitative approach that prioritizes the international partners’ global health security.

To understand how biosecurity engagement is conducted and evaluated, Michelle Rozo, Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University, interviewed more than 35 individuals in the United States and abroad (including government officials and their non-governmental partners) regarding current and future programs that can be used to create a cohesive, global health system approach to biosecurity. The results from the interviews are complied in an issue brief which also provides a strategy for policymakers to focus more on qualitative public health outcomes instead of quantitative security outputs. With this strategy, programs will cost less and be more effective in reducing global threats.

View Full Brief