By Ryan Duncombe and Lillian Parr
The U.S. State Department has released its 2022 report “Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements and Commitments.” The report is an important annual resource—and one of the few public, unclassified U.S. government assessments of biological weapons threats.
First, this year’s report indicates widespread compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), including by the United States and Ukraine, despite Russian disinformation to the contrary. Although all 182 States Parties to the BWC are required to submit annual data exchange reports as a politically-binding obligation, not all States regularly meet this commitment. 2021 marked the first year in which a majority of States Parties submitted reports—a small sign of progress in BWC confidence-building measures.
Second, despite most nations complying with the BWC’s terms and the norms it projects, the State Department’s report makes it clear that in a few cases state-sponsored biological weapons programs remain a significant risk, and it underscores the importance of addressing these threats effectively.
Key bio-focused takeaways from the report include:
- The United States has continued to be in compliance with all of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC). Furthermore, when other countries have formally raised a compliance concern regarding U.S. activities, the United States has reviewed and confirmed that its actions were in compliance with the BWC. Despite Russian dis- and misinformation accusing the United States of treaty-violating activities, the United States has remained committed to upholding the standards set forth in the BWC.
- While China has now postponed its bilateral BWC-related meeting with the United States two years in a row, in 2021 the U.S. Intelligence Community investigated the origins of COVID-19 and judged that SARS-CoV-2 was not developed as a biological weapon and there is no connection between the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and China’s compliance with the BWC. However, the United States remains concerned about dual-use research activities in China that may violate its obligations under Article I of the BWC.
- The United States continues to assess that North Korea has an offensive biological weapons program and is in violation of its obligations under the BWC. The United States has assessed that North Korea likely has the capability to produce bacteria, viruses, and toxins that could be used as biological weapons and has some limited genetic engineering capabilities.
- The United States continues to assess that Russia maintains an offensive biological weapons program and is violating its obligations under the BWC. This is of particular concern given intelligence that Russia may be conducting a false flag operation by accusing the United States of illegal biological weapons activities in Ukraine.
The United States has the opportunity to lead the charge on making bioweapons the first category of weapons of mass destruction to be rendered obsolete in terms of their catastrophic-level risks, and must urgently take action in line with this goal. In a recent meeting of the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, Senator Robert Casey noted that this should be achievable within a decade if the proper steps are taken (the meeting can be watched in full here, with Senator Casey’s remarks starting at 2:15 and his specific comment on rendering bioweapons obsolete at 2:21).
There is already promising momentum in this area. The Department of Defense is taking biological threats seriously and is working toward impactful solutions, as was discussed in the Council on Strategic Risk’s recent webinar.
However, given assessments that Russia and North Korea maintain biological weapons programs, the United States needs to step up efforts toward reducing biological threats. Some of the most important strategies needed to render bioweapons obsolete are outlined in the CSR’s Handbook for Ending Catastrophic Biological Risks—these bold policy shifts and investments are necessary to take biological threats off the table.