Expanding on Future Biological Weapons Convention Verification: An Interview with Dr. Piers Millett

By Dr. Dan Regan

Across the biodefense community, there was a significant sense of uneasiness heading into the Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), held in Geneva at the end of 2022. This was largely due to the stalled progress of previous review conferences, coupled with the current state of affairs shaped by Russian disinformation and concerns about non-compliance. Luckily, the result of the conference was generally positive, and there is renewed focus on how verification of compliance with the convention might be pursued in the future. To prepare for the Tenth Review Conference, a working group was established to address seven topics, including “measures on compliance and verification.” 

The last time the BWC significantly addressed the technical aspects of verification was the 1991-1994 Ad Hoc Group of Governmental Experts to Identify and Examine Potential Verification Measures. The result was the VEREX Report, which offered potential measures for on-site and off-site verification, emphasizing that multiple measures would be needed for an effective review of compliance. Between 1995-2001, the Ad Hoc Group worked on drafting a binding resolution for verification within the BWC, which ultimately was shuttered after rejections in 2001 by the President George W. Bush administration. 

Along the way, multiple experts have been working to develop ideas for how verification could be pursued. In a recent article, Feasibility of On-Site Verification, experts across academia, private industry, and non-government organizations addressed the modern considerations for a potential BWC verification protocol. In our efforts at the Council on Strategic Risks to raise the profile of such work, I recently spoke with co-author Dr. Piers Millett, who currently serves as the Executive Director of the International Biosecurity & Biosafety Initiative for Science (IBBIS).

Dan Regan: Dr. Millett, thank you for joining. To kick things off, what was the motivation to write on verification and if you’re willing to share some insight on what it was like to work with the co-authors? 

Piers Millett: I started engaging in biosecurity as an academic in an NGO, it was at the end of the efforts to negotiate a verification protocol for BWC. So my first trip to the bioweapons convention was in about 2000 to the Ad Hoc Group. And so I saw the collapse of those negotiations from the outside and I was interning inside the UN for the Fifth Review Conference, which is where that sort of played out inside the membership.

So I engage with the topic through the lens of verification, through the lens of those legally binding instruments being negotiated. And then it disappeared for two decades, at least. My personal motivation for looking at the topic was partly because I had a long-standing belief that so much time had passed that you couldn’t just have discussions over the political aspects. 

You know you sit through BWC meetings and you hear States Parties calling to return to those negotiations. Well, those negotiations were built on an earlier process that worked on the feasibility, the science and technology of actually telling when somebody was breaking the treaty and nobody had touched that since 1993/1994. And so the motivation was like, you can’t make political progress without going back to some of the technical work, and the technical work was built in a completely different world.

You know, my favorite anecdote from the paper is to remind people that the report of the last technical review process was written on a typewriter. I think there was an awareness that may have been a shift in the US position, moving up towards that ninth review conference. There was a willingness to discuss compliance in a way that hadn’t been obvious in previous U.S. administrations. 

I realized when I was approached for that chapter, If I was going to do that topic justice, what we would need is a group of different people with different skills. Some are from the research and development side of academia, some of them from industry, some of them running multiplexed platforms facilities that could produce a wide variety of different biological materials. We needed to have people that actually knew the way that biotech had changed over the last couple of decades, to be able to do so with a high personal degree of confidence. 

For me there was an assumption that was born out through the study that it’s not individual developments that have made a difference, it’s the way that science is conducted, it’s the way we transition science into engineering into real-world applications. It’s that that’s changed so much. The environment was completely different from how we used to imagine it when we were looking at it in the 90s.

Regan: The article highlights how much biotechnology has changed in the last three decades. Now, there’s an entire bioindustrial base and the implications that has for the biological weapons convention. So how do you look at something like verification of compliance in what is a new age for biotech? And how do you make it a modern-era effort to look at how you could do onsite, or offsite, verification? Even simply looking at that 30-year window from when these talks first started, could you future-proof any efforts if there was that traction now?

Millett: I think the future-proof question is virtually impossible because I’m fundamentally a believer in development. I’m hoping that we really are living in the century of biotechnology and that we’re going to use the power of engineering to in part solve some major global challenges that we’re currently struggling with.

I don’t want to get in the way of that. I want to see more of that done in a way that is responsible and safe and secure. And I’m not comfortable that I know what the biotech industry would look like in another 20 to 30 years’ time, but what I am 100% sure of is it won’t look like a biotech industry from 20 or 30 years of the past. And so if that’s our starting point then it’s not even about future-proofing, it’s about catching up with where we are.

The discussion of the difference between verification and compliance seems academic, but I think it’s vitally important in the biological space. Because personally, I think we will struggle to get the degrees of certainty necessary for traditional arms control verification, without being so intrusive that we genuinely do put national security and commercial proprietary information at risk. The sort of level of intrusiveness you would need is just so great. What’s quite interesting is in the chapter, our compliance framing allows you to then say, “We’re not trying to prove ‘yes’ or ‘no’ did somebody breach the treaty?” Instead we envisage a slightly more collaborative process of proving there’s nothing to worry about, then you ask different questions, use the same sorts of tools. Ultimately the decision of “has an institution” or “has a country” complied with international obligations is a political decision, not a technical decision. 

Regan: In talking about the development of biotechnology and how it is near-impossible to future-proof the BWC, I think that really highlights the importance of the States Parties coming together during the Review Conferences. And the importance of open dialogue, continuing to build on this treaty in this framework to make sure that there are efforts to keep it as modern and as useful as possible. Could you expand on the recent review conference, especially on the establishment of the inter-sessional working group? And building on your discussion of verification versus compliance, do you think verification or compliance stands a chance to be seriously discussed during the 10th Review Conference in 2027?

Millett: I think getting consensus to do things at review conferences is very, very hard. I think it’s gotten harder over the years. I don’t think we live in an epoch where there is enough consensus in the global community on how to get to a better future or how to build systems that make that happen more readily.

So I think getting every review conference decision is hard. It’s not unique to the biological weapons convention. If you look at recent review conferences from any arms control and design treaty, the BWC did particularly well then getting its outcome at the end of 2022. Especially given some of the geopolitics and the accusations around the use of development of biological weapons. Getting global consensus on a new process is quite an achievement.

In comparison to some other potential global threats and risks, biological weapons and malign misuse of biotechnology are massively underrated. 

When I was working in the [BWC] Implementation Support Unit, which is the only body that exists at the moment for the biological weapons convention, we used to say that its annual budget was roughly the same as a local McDonald’s. And if you think that’s what the global community is collectively spending on preventing the development or use of biological weapons, then that’s kind of ridiculous.

And so that’s worth remembering as well—that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit that we can do in some of these spaces, but the need for more ambition, and the need for bigger systems is definitely there. 

Regan: Just to highlight that point of there being such small support, the Implementation Support Unit just got consensus to add its fourth full-time staff member. And that often brings up a comparison to other arms control communities, like the chemical weapons convention and its implementing body, the OPCW [Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons]. So the next question becomes: does there need to be an external, independent, or outside entity to bolster efforts to achieve the goals of the BWC–either within the framework of the BWC or separate and in parallel to the BWC?

Millett: I think that the challenge is big enough that all of the above is the most appropriate answer, right? And just to talk about the BWC itself specifically for the moment, I think we also see a change in trends in organizations in these sorts of areas. 

There are loads that can be done outside of it, in parallel to it. Certainly from my time there, and seen from the outside, not every state is ready to look at this issue or work on it at the same speed. Those that see it as a greater threat have the capacity to work together, faster than the rest of the membership in a certain area. You can think about the Global Partnership and their Africa Signature Initiative as a model for this. 

Selfishly I’ll plug IBBIS at this point. We’re working to create the Common Mechanism which would be an open and accessible gene synthesis screening tool. Deliberately trying to lower the barriers to engagement in gene synthesis screening around the world so that it can be used by more people in more places. Having part of that future-proofing effort because as we continue using biomedical engineering and synthetic biology, those sorts of practical tools are needed more and more. One of the things that made me want to lead IBBIS and get involved with this is because I think there’s a broad acceptance we need something like that, but I think it’s probably too risky an initiative for an intergovernmental organization to say “Yes, we will commit to building a new tool that nobody knows how it’s gonna work, you don’t know what it’s gonna look like and promote it to our members before everybody’s happy with it.”

That is hard for an intergovernmental organization to do. It’s easier when an international organization goes and builds it, proves it works, and engages everybody so they are comfortable with it, so they can see exactly what it is they are signing up to. And then if someone in the future wants to have something like that, then they can have it. We can hand over the Common Mechanism to any intergovernmental organization ready to take it. I think having worked both inside and outside of those organizations, there is a stepping stone, a bridge to getting it ready to be built into the international frameworks.

Regan: That’s a great point. And I think the Common Mechanism is a really good example of a tool that is trying to tackle the problem of trying to catch up to biotechnology in a way that isn’t impeding the future advancement of the field and building transparency. This segues into a similar dilemma, in which virtually every aspect of biotech could be categorized as a potential risk area for dual-use concerns and stresses the importance of transparency to continuing the advancement of the BWC’s goals. Would you be willing to share your thoughts on if you see a way to build towards more transparency, and is it really the case that if even just a few countries don’t provide things like CBMs that it can really stonewall the efforts of the BWC?

Millett: One of the most interesting aspects of the paper that we’ve put together was how we could use existing data. We know there is a huge amount of information already in the public domain. The idea of not leveraging it—ignoring it—because it wasn’t officially provided by a state, personally, seems like a waste of opportunities. So, if some of the concern over creating a compliance or verification regime is about the additional burden it would place on companies or governments, then you could look at minimizing that by using existing data sources.

Another thing is I don’t think existing data sources are anywhere near good enough. A key finding from our report was that we don’t have good enough baseline data with disease to know what normal is. If we don’t know what normal is, we don’t know what unusual is. And if we don’t know what unusual is, we can’t tell what unusual but unnatural is. So—how do we start building much better sets of baseline data so that we can detect deviations from the norm? I’m not sure we could ever automate the process of finding something that’s unnatural, or certainly not in the short to medium term. But at least if we make it better and have a lens to be able to focus on incidents that are unusual enough that we should give them extra attention, then that would be a step forward.

This is an area where the advances in metagenomic sequencing and the proven capabilities to use sequencing during the recent pandemic generate those sorts of insights into what is normally circulating and how it is changing. Those are platforms that I would love to see much more fully explored, more fully integrated into our current health systems. That would then have a spin-off advantage to unusual and unnatural disease events, as well. 

Regan: Agreed—we are in an era where we essentially have all the tools and technical capabilities to get there. It’s just a matter of putting the resources behind it, to get that outcome and the metrics that we need to support the goals of this area. But what obstacles do you think need to be addressed in this inter-sessional period to really continue building on the progress from the Ninth Review Conference? 

Millett: I think the biggest challenge is going to be moving from the diplomatic political process back to technical discussions. From my own personal experience, I often see diplomacy as being based upon constructive ambiguity.

You’re looking for a set of words where everybody can go home thinking something completely different and that they got what they wanted. That’s great from the point of view that you get a constructive outcome from a high-level meeting, but if everybody’s gone home thinking they got something completely different when it actually comes time to translate that into action, then the starting points are quite dissimilar. You then reopen all of the gaps between national positions that you cunningly painted over. 

Solving those sorts of issues and getting past the major reaction of “we need to go back,” we should be picking up work and getting down to the questions of exploring how the environment has changed. 

But, you know, we say in the article that this is our view. This is one snapshot put together by a subset of experts with particular backgrounds. States Parties, collectively, haven’t done that exercise since 1993. So we shouldn’t rush to the point of “we shouldn’t negotiate a verification protocol.” Personally, I would be much more comfortable if there was some discussion around how things have changed, what are the new challenges and opportunities, and trying to look at the landscape changes. I think that would be a really useful use of time.

I’m not sure you’ll get consensus that that is what the purpose of this process was. But it may be in the next few years that a creation of VEREX 2.0 could be negotiated, which would then give you that process. And it may not be until after the 10th Review Conference that you see that sort of action being taken.

Regan: As we’ve talked, the discussion about switching from technical to diplomatic dialogue has shown to be really important, and highlighting the difference between verification and compliance will be another key piece to consider for future dialogue. Are there any elements from the SSRN article or thoughts around our recent framing that you would like to expand on that I haven’t brought up yet?

Millett: Sure, a couple of things. When this is looked at on a global scale, this is no longer a challenge for a small subset of countries. When this was being negotiated back in the 1990s, there was a small number of countries with a biotech industry that took advantage of recent developments in science and technology, that could have a breakout biological weapons program with a production capability that could be military relevant. That is no longer the case. Now, the vast majority of the countries of the world, if they chose to have an offensive biological warfare program, have the capabilities to do that. 

But, as I said earlier, I want more of them to have it [biotech industries], because I want to see more vaccine manufacturing capability around the world. I want to see more multi-plex production facilities that are producing nanoparticles to encase mRNA technologies because the next natural paramedic will need those sorts of capabilities. And so that is not a bad thing. But it doesn’t mean that this [verification] is no longer something that can be pushed to a small subset of countries to try and figure out.

My last personal reflection, I think with dual-use technologies, especially for biological warfare programs as opposed to bioterrorism, it’s when we see the alignment of advanced biotechnology and military capabilities or national security capabilities overlapping that may warrant a higher degree of focus. Dealing with this [programs under direct government controls] would not solve all of the problems, but it may be something that is palatable when it is certainly something that is under direct government controls as far as being able to grant access, make commitments to gather information to share. That’s much easier to do when it is a government-owned and government-run facility.

Regan: Thanks, Dr. Millett.  We really appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective and for the opportunity to deep-dive into the challenges of verifying BWC compliance. 

For additional deep dives into this topic, below are a few of Dr. Millett’s suggested readings.


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