Discussion summary: Hybrid warfare and biological agents

Peace, Security & Defence

This is a summary of the recently concluded discussion on the seventh edition of Debating Security Plus (DS+). DS+ is a global online brainstorm that brings together a community of global security experts throughout the year to discuss the changing nature of warfare and its implication for global thinking on peace, security and defence.

Over 40 years ago, the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was signed, the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning the development, production and stockpiling of biological weapons of mass destruction. While there have been six Review Conferences – intended to help member states implement the convention, promote confidence-building measures and ensure universal adherence – biological threats are still frequently overlooked in international security cooperation. This was the background against which October’s Debating Security Plus discussion took place.

Filippa Lentzos, Senior Research Fellow at Kings College London launched the debate by arguing that we should not think of bio-weapons as we do of bombs, “they are processes rather than items”. Dr Lentzos warned that a side effect of increasing numbers of countries developing bio-defence programmes is also an increasing capacity to do harm in the biological sphere, and an increased chance that this capacity to harm could turn into a threat if the intent is there.

Preventing an escalation is thus crucial. Concrete measures can be taken to ensure that bio-threats are addressed before a potential attack. Peter McGrath, Coordinator of the InterAcademy Partnership, highlighted the importance of working across borders to establish consensus among scientists, raising awareness of dual-use issues in biotechnology, particularly across the developing world. McGrath’s organisation is at the forefront of operationalising the promises of the BWC and preventing an unintentional escalation.

What role can the private sector play in establishing preparedness against bioweapons attacks? Daniil Davydoff, Associate Director of Intelligence at AT-RISK International, contends that whilst vulnerabilities in the biosecurity sphere are growing, they tend to be neglected by stakeholders in the private sector. Davydoff warns that only the deployment of military-grade bioweapons is taken into account by companies in their risk analyses and not wider background bio-threats such as vectors spreading globally and antimicrobial resistance worsening.

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