Negotiations to prohibit biological weapons became part of the agenda of the international community with the organization of the United Nations. Initial discussions focused on a treaty aimed at both chemical and biological weapons, but little progress was made until the mid-1960s. At the insistence of the British, negotiators began to focus on a treaty limited solely to biological weapons. The result was the 1972  Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which prohibited possession of any biological and toxin weapons. Although the treaty does not define what constitutes a biological weapon, subsequent deliberations made clear that the agreement proscribes the possession of any weapon that incorporates any pathogenic microorganism or poison of biological origin, including those developed using science that did not exist at the time the treaty was negotiated.

In history, the Soviet Union never intended to respect the treaty. Its efforts to develop biological weapons accelerated after the Biological Weapons Convention entered into force. Because the Biological Weapons Convention lacks verification procedures, the treaty’s signatories tried to negotiate a protocol to provide them during the 1990s. The attempt failed. While the United States is often blamed, Russia and the members of the Non-Aligned Movement also undermined the negotiations. U.S. opposition reflected widely held views in Washington that the proposed agreement was fatally flawed, unlikely to uncover treaty violations or otherwise enhance confidence in treaty compliance.

Despite the treaty’s flaws, it plays a central role in the delegitimization of Biological Weapons. Review conferences, held every 5 years since the treaty entered into force, provide an opportunity for the international community to reaffirm its continued importance. At those meetings, the states’ parties have also concurred that the agreement comprehensively applies to new scientific developments. As the 2006 conference reported, the treaty “applies to all scientific and technological developments in the life sciences and in other fields of science relevant to the Convention.” The failure of the 2016 Review Conference to reach agreement has generated concerns about the treaty’s future.

Preventing countries from acquiring biological weapons capabilities also is a part of the Biological Weapons nonproliferation regime. The Australia Group, created as a response to Iraq’s use of chemical warfare agents during its war with Iran in the 1980s, strives to harmonize export regulations among a like-minded group of countries. It covers biological warfare agents and equipment need to produce biological agents and weapons. In addition, United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540, originally adopted in the year 2004, requires all UN member states to prevent terrorists from obtaining access to weapons of mass destruction, including BW capabilities. In the year 2010, the resolution’s mandate was extended to the year 2021. More recently, scientific organizations supported by national governments have created codes of conduct to establish norms against the use of biology as a weapon.

Since the end of World War II, Biological Weapons science and technology has developed in ways that could make effectively disseminated biological weapons as deadly as thermonuclear weapons. At the same time, globalization and the widespread adoption of so-called dual-use technologies—those with legitimate uses for commerce, science, or medicine—have made many of the underlying scientific and technical capabilities required for Biological Weapons programs accessible even to small groups and individuals.

The growth in Biological Weapon’s lethality was not matched by increased use. Indeed, there is no evidence of widespread use of biological agents since 1945. There were small- scale attacks, amounting to biological sabotage, but none of those exploited the new dissemination technologies developed by the developed countries. There was some terrorist interest in Biological Weapons and a few instances of actual use. These attacks either failed or caused sickness but no deaths. The deadliest biological attacks have been attributed to criminals. 

What is the future of Biological Weapons? Will there be a resurgence of Biological Weapons proliferation? Will non-state actors resort to bioterrorism? Will any countries or states employ biological agents to inflict catastrophic casualties?

In the present Covid-19 pandemic, the question marks an uprising in the minds: Does the Covid-19 disease now an epoch of offensive biological Weapons? As the analysis illustrates, biological warfare has been rare. So far as is known, the only significant use resulting in substantial loss of life was by Japan against the Chinese during the 1940s. Despite advances in Biological Weapon science, the only subsequent uses have been sabotage operations resulting in few casualties. Why it has been so rare is unclear, because the simpler forms of biological sabotage have been accessible for more than 100 years.

Some argue that continuing advances in the biological sciences, the globalization of biological skills and technology, and the growing accessibility of enabling technology will inevitably result in more, and more deadly, use of Biological Weapons. Capabilities once limited to the developed countries might be accessible even to non-state actors in the future. Indeed, given the pace of new scientific discovery, capabilities not available to even the superpowers during the Cold War might be accessible to lone actors.

In contrast, others are more skeptical, arguing that biological weapons are harder to develop and employ than many have claimed. These skeptics also contend that technical considerations may not be the most significant constraint.Tacit knowledge, which is undocumented information essential for the exploitation of science and technology required to make biological weapons, is known to practitioners of Biological Weapons (an ever-smaller group) but not to others expert in the biological sciences. Additionally, there is limited evidence that states or non-state actors will be attracted to Biological Weapons because they or their supporters might find the use of Biological Weapons morally or politically repugnant. Some argue that ultimately there are strong norms against Biological Weapons and that the few attempts to use it represent outliers unlikely to be often repeated.

If the use of biological weapons increases in the future, it will be because some past constraint has disappeared. Although technological and scientific advances might facilitate that trend, it is most likely to result from fundamental changes in attitudes toward the use of disease as a weapon.

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