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BWC Experts Discuss Biosecurity, Awareness

Meredith Lugo

Member states of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) convened their annual Meeting of Experts in Geneva Aug. 18-22. Aimed at strengthening the implementation and improving the effectiveness of the convention, the meeting is part of a four-year program that was mandated by the 2006 Sixth Review Conference of the BWC.

Chaired by Ambassador Georgi Avramchev of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, this year’s meeting focused on two broad themes relating to BWC effectiveness and implementation. According to the official BWC Implementation Unit, the beginning of the week emphasized “national, regional and international measures to improve biosafety and biosecurity,” while the latter half of the sessions focused on “oversight, education, awareness raising and…codes of conduct” to prevent the misuse of scientific and biological research. Similar topics were discussed at the 2003 and 2005 meetings.

Attendees of the meeting included state scientists; experts from international and regional organizations, academies of science, professional organizations, and academic institutions; and private sector experts.

Commencing the week’s session, state representatives and experts discussed the safety and security of laboratories and pathogens. Several member states made remarks on their domestic and regional efforts to increase biosecurity and biosafety, and select international organizations and scientific bodies, including the World Health Organization, the UN Environment Program/Global Environment Facility, and the American Biological Safety Association, made educational presentations. The private BioWeapons Prevention Project reported Aug. 20 that the amount of detail in the statements and presentations was “substantially greater than in previous years.”

Meetings later in the week focused on education and awareness among scientists and students in order to elucidate the danger of harnessing scientific research in ways prohibited by the convention. Presentations and proposals included establishing codes of conduct for scientists and vetting scientists involved in sensitive research.

One hundred and one states participated in this year’s meeting, including states-parties, signatories, and three observer states. The overall participation in the meeting has increased from 2007, when 99 states attended, and 2005, when 86 states participated.

Richard Lennane, head of the BWC Implementation Support Unit, said in an interview with Arms Control Today Sept. 23 that he observed unprecedented participation among Nonaligned Movement (NAM) countries. Formed during the Cold War, NAM is an organization of states who did not ally with either power bloc. More than 50 percent of participating states were from NAM, which was an increase from 2007 and 2005. Of the 55 participating NAM countries, 21 sent technical experts; and 20 NAM states made detailed presentations during the week, which was more than double the number in 2007.

The 2008 meeting marked the first time “poster sessions” were organized during the event. Focusing on the two themes of the week, the sessions created a forum for experts to display posters on their research, allowing other participants to speak with experts in an informal, one-on-one format. In his Aug. 19 remarks for the opening of the session, Avramchev explained that these sessions were set up in response to feedback that delegates had provided during previous meetings. Experts had “[traveled] long distances to participate…but had found themselves trapped in a big conference room…listening to diplomats making speeches.” The new poster sessions, Avramchev said, would provide an organized forum for attendees to meet and communicate so that the meeting is able to make the “most of the valuable opportunity of having so many knowledgeable experts in the same place.”

To conclude the meeting, Avramchev prepared a compilation of “Considerations, Lessons, Perspectives, Recommendations, Conclusions and Proposals” from the statements, presentations, working papers, and panels throughout the week. Although the paper was drafted solely by Avramchev and was not officially agreed on by delegations, it contained suggestions focused on biosecurity and biosafety and education, awareness, and oversight of biological research. During its December meeting in Geneva, the meeting of states-parties to the BWC will likely consider the compilation.

The BWC currently has 162 member states, and 13 states have signed the convention but not ratified it. Since the last Meeting of Experts in 2007, Madagascar and Zambia have acceded to the convention, and the United Arab Emirates has ratified the BWC. Avramchev noted during the meeting that Cameroon and Mozambique were preparing to become states-parties to the BWC and that Comoros, Cote d’Ivoire, Myanmar, and Nepal were making progress in their preparations to accede to the convention.