Tue. Oct 26th, 2021

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Experts meeting in Geneva for an annual meeting of the Biological Weapons Convention have called for stricter powers to enforce the treaty, as the Covid-19 pandemic sharpens global awareness of biological threats.

“The pandemic has provided a clear illustration that the inevitable uncertainty surrounding the origin of biological events could cause speculation and mistrust that could have global consequences,” said academics and research institutions including the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Safety and the UK nonprofit VERTIC , said in a joint statement Monday at the start of the eight-day session, attended by representatives of the 183 BWC members and bio-arms experts.

“The BWC is well positioned to establish a reliable clearing house for the collection and analysis of information regarding the origin of important biological events,” they added.

Twenty months after the first cases of Covid-19 were identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the origin of the virus is being hotly debated. A fact-finding mission by the World Health Organization to the city in January 2021 was unconvincing and is criticized for gaining limited access to Chinese facilities and data.

A US intelligence investigation by President Joe Biden in May ordered whether Sars-Cov-2-the virus that causes Covid-19-naturally originated or could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology did not come to a definitive conclusion. Beijing has rejected any suggestion of a leak from the laboratory.

Diplomatic sensitivity would prevent any formal reference to the so-called laboratory theory during the Geneva conference, but the reluctance of Chinese officials to give inspectors more access undermines confidence in Beijing’s commitment to the BWC, said Filippa Lentzos, a social scientist at King’s College London investigating threats to biologics.

“The whole story will have implications for confidence in China’s commitments, but none of it will be publicly broadcast,” said Lentzos, who is attending the meeting.

Researchers work in 2017 in a laboratory of the Wuhan Institute of Virology

Researchers work at Wuhan Institute of Virology in 2017. Beijing has denied that the Sars-Cov-2 virus originates from the facility © Shepherd Hou / EPA

Government signatories to the BWC, plus independent experts, meet regularly under the auspices of the UN to review the text of the treaty. The Convention prohibits the development, storage, transfer and use of biological weapons, but does not contain formal measures to ensure compliance by member states.

It covers dual-use research – technology that can be used for defensive or offensive purposes – but gives governments leeway. It is forbidden to carry out such activities for offensive military use, while allowing research and development for defense or prophylactic purposes.

Although it has not yet been proven that Sars-Cov-2 came from a research facility, experts call for a global mechanism to provide independent, transparent, and accredited fact-checking of major biological events.

They argue that little is known about the biological research done by different governments because the BWC is too weak. When the meeting was set up, James Leonard, the American negotiator, described it as a ‘gentleman’s agreement’.

Andy Weber, assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical and biological defense programs under President Barack Obama, said the convention has no mechanism for enforcing or verifying and inspecting biological research.

At the end of the 1990s, an attempt was made to add a verification clause based on the success of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which has very good verification and inspection capabilities. . . but it has been blocked, mostly by the United States, ”he said.

Wuhan Institute staff have in the past expressed concern about some of the research done there, especially where it may have intersected with the work of the Chinese military.

Artist's impression of the Sars-Cov-2 virus
Artist’s impression of the Sars-Cov-2 virus. The pandemic has raised global awareness of biological threats © National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases

At a December 2011 panel held by the US Government’s National Institutes of Health, Yuan Zhiming, a microbiologist at the Wuhan Institute, warned: ‘In China, there is no regulation on identifying dual-use research. no, and there is no regulation on the classification of research and classification of information. ”

There were a lot of legitimate questions about the dual use of what they do in this [Wuhan] facility, but that again does not imply that they are necessarily doing anything contrary to the BWC, ”Lentzos said.

‘What is legal is to draw attention to Chinese military involvement in the Wuhan Institute of Virology, both in terms of leadership, in terms of co-authorship of publications, in terms of funding all the things, which is a lot of things we do not know about not and the Chinese are not very open or transparent. ”

The Wuhan Institute did not respond to a request for comment.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry told the Financial Times that they were still committed to protecting the convention and said the US had undermined efforts to set up a biological weapons inspection mechanism when it was launched in the early 2000s. withdrew from discussions on broadening the BWC to concerns of U.S. pharmaceutical groups.

‘As the US believes that it is practical to investigate laboratories in Wuhan, it has no reason to oppose [such a mechanism] and has even less reason to reject inspections of Fort Detrick, ”the ministry said, referring to the home of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases in Maryland.

In response to calls for an independent investigation by the Wuhan Institute, China has repeatedly suggested, without providing credible evidence, that Sars-Cov-2 may have originated at the US institution.

“Fort Detrick contains a large number of viruses that seriously threaten the safety of people, and there are many security risks and loopholes at Fort Detrick,” a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said at a news conference in June.

Additional reporting Christian Shepherd in Beijing

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