The Australia Group decided June 5 to add 14 human pathogens to its Biological Control List. During the four-day meeting in Paris, the group also agreed on new policies aimed at helping both member and nonmember states participate in decreasing the dangers of chemical and biological weapons.
The control list is aimed at preventing the export of certain items that could be used to produce biological weapons. The human pathogens added this year to the Biological Control List include two toxin-producing strains of bacteria, six bio-safety level (BSL)-4 viruses, and six BSL-3 viruses, all of which the Australia Group believes could potentially be made into lethal biological weapons. Some have grabbed headlines in the last decade, including Escherichia coli (commonly referred to as E. coli) 0157:H7, the strain that caused a 1993 outbreak in Jack in the Box restaurants in the western United States that hospitalized 125 and killed three. They also added to the list several strains of Hantavirus, including the one that caused a 1993 outbreak in the Four Corners region—named after the area where the borders of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico meet. That outbreak killed more than half of the 48 people infected that year.
In addition to enlarging the Biological Control List, the group’s members agreed to measures to increase transparency and information sharing within the group and approved a practical guide to help officials ensure compliance with the group’s export controls. Member states also endorsed “a cooperative program of action to engage countries in the Asia-Pacific region on chemical and biological weapons-related export control issues,” according to a June 6 Australian Foreign Ministry press release, in an effort to reach out to nonmember countries in a regional manner and encourage their help in stemming the spread of these weapons.
The Australia Group began in June 1985 when 15 countries decided—in the wake of a UN investigation into Iraq’s use of chemical weapons in its war with Iran—to harmonize their export controls over materials that could be used to develop chemical weapons. Annual meetings have continued, with membership in the group growing to 33 states plus the European Commission and its concerns expanding to include biological weapons. Member states are united by their common objective of using export-licensing measures to ensure that they do not contribute—overtly or inadvertently—to a third-party nation’s development of chemical or biological weapons.
Human pathogens are categorized by their bio-safety level based on a scale from 1 to 4, with 1 representing organisms that are difficult to transmit, easy to treat, or nonpathogenic and 4 representing pathogens that are easy to transmit, have no known cure or vaccine, and have high mortality rates.