Pressure to act: Covid-19 and the global governance of biological weapons

This article is part of the series Governance, in crisis.

By Michelle Bentley
Reader in International Relations and Director of the Centre for International Security at Royal Holloway, University of London

Synopsis: Covid-19 will radically change and challenge global action on biological weapons. By demonstrating the extreme consequences of biological warfare (both in terms of public health and social disruption), the pandemic will redefine the current debate and put new pressure on international actors to address the threat through global governance structures.

Keywords: Covid-19, biological weapons, disease, global governance

Covid-19 has challenged our perceptions of what security is. Security is typically conceptualised in terms of conventional threats – such as war, weapons, and terrorism. The pandemic, however, has highlighted that issues like disease also have the power to bring society to a standstill. But what if these two things are combined?

As well as global health concerns, the current pandemic has also demonstrated the threat of biological warfare, understood as the deliberate use of disease as a weapon. The international community has worked hard to control, and mitigate the potential effects of, biological weapons – although not as hard as some would like. In fact, biological warfare has frequently been overlooked in favour of concerns relating to other types of weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear and chemical arms. Yet Covid-19 has shown that biological warfare is a major threat by highlighting the extreme and terrible consequences that these weapons could have. This realisation will have serious implications for global governance structures and how they deal with the threat of biological warfare going forward.

Disease as a security risk

Covid-19 will challenge and change global governance on biological warfare by demonstrating exactly what disease can do. One of the key factors that have hindered the international community’s action on biological warfare in the past has been a failure to fully understand the physical and political effects of these weapons – not just in terms of public health, but also social disruption. Analysts have long disagreed over what the fallout from a biological attack would actually look like, largely because biological weapons have not really been used. This has led to a lot of speculation; but global governance is difficult when it is based on the imagination. How do you control what you do not know? While we have experienced major disease outbreaks before – such as Ebola in 2014 – which have informed security policy to a degree, the current pandemic is unprecedented and gives new meaning to the potential threat of biological weapons. Covid-19 will provide a more solid basis for the discussion of policy and – importantly – consensus, simply because policymakers and the public now have a better idea of what they are talking about.

New diplomacy

Potential opportunities for this new policymaking include the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). The convention is the main international agreement controlling biological arms, which bans the ‘development, production, and stockpiling’ of these weapons. There are currently 183 parties to the agreement. Yet the BWC is mired in controversy. In particular, state parties have disagreed over provisions surrounding verification i.e. the measures that ensure no party is developing such weapons in violation of the agreement. Policymakers have not been able to agree on what these measures should involve and how strong they should be. Verification is a long-standing bugbear of the BWC, to the extent that some analysts say this dispute could undermine the convention’s future. Covid-19 will put new pressure on policymakers to strengthen agreements such as the BWC. While there would still be disagreements over the nature and viability of verification, the pandemic could create a new global governance platform for at least further debate on biological weapons control.

The 9/11 and anthrax attacks demonstrate what this new diplomacy could mean. After these attacks, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1540, which is designed to promote international cooperation around preventing terrorists from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, including biological arms. Covid-19 could bring about similar types of global governance activity as policymakers seek to control the threat.

Diplomatic cooperation will be driven by leaders’ need to look strong on global public health. Covid-19 has shaken confidence in the ability of states, institutions, and international political actors to deal with a major health crisis; and also, therefore, the consequences of a biological weapons attack. For many, this inability to cope is unsurprising – organisations such as the Nuclear Threat Initiative have been warning for years that the world was not ready or equipped to deal with a pandemic. This need to demonstrate political strength is only heightened by concerns that Covid-19 could be weaponised (there is already a conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is a biological weapon, or the result of a biological warfare experiment gone wrong). Consequently, there is now a significant incentive to seriously address anything to do with global health, including the control of biological warfare.

A global issue

Covid-19 highlights how truly global the issue of biological warfare is – and how it demands a global response. The pandemic transcends state boundaries, as do the measures used to control it such as restrictions on international travel and quarantine policies. Global governance will necessarily be a major aspect of our response going forward, where this also has implications for international policy on biological warfare. Not least where Covid-19 has shown that the repercussions of biological warfare can turn global, the control and mitigation of these weapons must be international in scope and pursued through global governance structures. In particular, Covid-19 demonstrates a need for consistency across different countries. The criticism now being laid against the UK for acting too late can be contrasted to the praise of New Zealand for its quick (and currently more effective) response. The need for global standards is clear, where inconsistent policies have arguably made the pandemic worse.

Ultimately, Covid-19 is evidence that biological warfare could have profound and far-reaching consequences and needs to be controlled. It is also evidence that the only way to achieve this is through global governance structures and a truly international response.

This article is part of the series “Governance, in crisis”.  To read the other articles, click here.

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