(Bloomberg) -- Hundreds of diplomats and health security experts are gathering in Geneva to grapple with the increasing risk that viruses, bacteria and other pathogens could be used as weapons. But Russia’s presence threatens to undercut their efforts.
Russia’s disinformation campaign alleging that the US has supported secret biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine is likely to undermine negotiations at a conference geared toward strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention, the first global disarmament treaty that sought to ban an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.
For the first time in six years, representatives from the US, Russia, China and other countries are gathering at Geneva’s Palais des Nations starting Monday to review the treaty, which is seen as lacking the geopolitical and scientific muscle needed to verify whether nations have violated it. But health security experts say they fear that Russia will use the three-week conference as a platform to again peddle false contentions intended to sow distrust in the US and Ukraine.
“There are a lot of heightened tensions at play,” said Anita Cicero, deputy director at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. “The question is whether Russia will double down on their allegations, and therefore limited agreements are made, or whether or not that’s just a sideshow.”
Since invading Ukraine in February, President Vladimir Putin’s government has repeatedly claimed its foe is collaborating with the US on biological weapons. The United Nations’ disarmament chief has said there’s no sign of such weapons in the country. American officials have said Russia is misrepresenting US-backed research on defending against disease and toxins.
Yet Gennady Gatilov, Russia’s representative to the UN in Geneva, said in opening remarks at the conference Monday that the US has operated a biological weapons program in Ukraine, calling that “an unacceptable situation” that “remains unsettled. He said Washington and Kyiv haven’t provided evidence to the contrary and that the US is “ignoring Russian claims.”
The European Union said in its opening remarks that “Russia has been engaged in a campaign of disinformation” and said that efforts to undermine legitimate public health research only weaken the treaty.
The conference has taken on added urgency as Covid-19 has shown how a virus can wreak havoc on the world.
“It drove home the capacity for biology to cause death, incapacitation and socioeconomic disruption on a staggering scale,” said James Revill, who leads the Weapons of Mass Destruction program at the UN Institute for Disarmament Research.
In the face of the pandemic and the global race to dominate the biotechnology industry, the US and other countries have expressed renewed interest in strengthening the treaty during the conference.
But to take action, the participants must reach a consensus on what steps should be pursued over the next five years. Russia could hold those negotiations hostage, its critics said.
“We have fought since February -- so for months now -- false allegations,” said Raj Panjabi, senior director for global health security and biodefense for the White House’s National Security Council, which recently put out a new National Biodefense Strategy that calls for strengthening the treaty. “The Biological Weapons Convention is itself under attack.”
In a sign of the frustration, some of the 650 people who were planning to attend have decided to skip the event altogether.
Biology has long been wielded as a cheap and grimly effective instrument of war. Through history, adversaries have contaminated wells, infected animals and weaponized plague, smallpox, anthrax and yellow fever.
As concerns about biological weapons escalated in the 20th century, major world powers repeatedly tried and failed to reach terms to ban the production and proliferation of infectious agents, gases and toxins. They persisted, fearful that biological weapons could cause mass human casualties and devastate critical food sources.
Negotiations ultimately came down to the US and Soviet Union, which reached an agreement in 1971 that was opened for signature the next year.
Much has changed since then: Scientific advances have had the side effect of eroding barriers to the development of biological weapons. These living tools of war are now easier to produce and harder to identify. And it remains difficult to distinguish between man-made, accidental and naturally occurring pathogens, which has often left the scientific community vulnerable to unsubstantiated attacks.
Over the summer, Russia triggered a mechanism of the Biological Weapons Convention to convene a formal hearing of its allegations that the US aided covert bioweapons programs in Ukraine. After no other state formally supported its claims, Russia asked the UN Security Council in October to establish a commission to investigate them. The US and Ukraine once again refuted the allegations, and the UN disarmament officials reiterated that no evidence of biological weapons use in Ukraine had been presented.
“Russia is trying to sow discord,” said Filippa Lentzos, an associate professor in science and international security at King’s College London, who said she expects the disinformation campaign to continue at the Biological Weapons Convention review conference.
“At this point, Russia doesn’t care if it’s a spoiler state,” she said.
Despite the prospect of distractions, the conference is intended to grapple with issues including advances in science and technology, the need for better tools to assess dual-use biological research, ways to determine the origins of health crises and the challenges of verifying whether countries are complying with the treaty.
Diplomats will also discuss how to boost resources for biological disarmament. The team supporting the Biological Weapons Convention has an annual budget of $1.5 million, which is “laughable” compared to international disarmament treaties concerning nuclear and chemical weapons, according to Leonardo Bencini, an Italian diplomat who is serving as president-designate for the conference.
Bencini said he remains optimistic that consensus on future disarmament priorities can be reached.
“This is a matter of professionalism and international cooperation,” he said. “The stakes are high: We absolutely have to learn the lessons from the pandemic. We have to focus on substantive issues.”
(Updates with Russian and EU comments starting in sixth paragraph)
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