Biological Weapons Convention

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Biological Weapons Convention


History and Scientific Foundations

Applications and Research

Impacts and Issues



The Biological Weapons Convention (also more properly, but less widely, known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention) is an international agreement that prohibits the development and stockpiling of biological weapons. The language of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)—drafted in 1972—describes biological weapons as “repugnant to the conscience of mankind.”

History and Scientific Foundations

The BWC broadly prohibits the development of pathogens—disease-causing microorganisms, such as viruses and bacteria—and biological toxins that do not have established prophylactic merit (i.e., no ability to serve a protective immunological role), beneficial industrial use, or use in medical treatment.

The BWC prohibits the offensive weaponization of biological agents (e.g., anthrax spores). The BWC also prohibits the transformation of biological agents with established legitimate and sanctioned purposes into agents of a nature and quality that could be used to effectively induce illness or death. In addition to offensive weaponization of microorganisms and/or toxins, prohibited research procedures include concentrating a strain of bacterium or virus, altering the size of aggregations of potentially harmful biologic agents (e.g., refining anthrax spore sizes to spore sizes small enough to be effectively and widely carried in air currents), producing strains capable of withstanding normally adverse environmental conditions (e.g., disbursement weapons blast), and/or the manipulation of a number of other factors that make biologic agents effective weapons.

The United States renounced the first-use of biological weapons and restricted future weapons research programs to issues concerning defensive responses (e.g., immunization, detection, etc.), by executive order in 1969.

Applications and Research

Although the BWC disarmament provisions stipulated that biological weapons stockpiles were to have been destroyed by 1975, most Western intelligence agencies openly question whether all stockpiles have been destroyed. For example, despite the fact that it was a signatory party to the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, the former Soviet Union maintained a well-funded and high-intensity biological weapons program throughout the 1970s and 1980s that worked to produce and stockpile biological weapons including anthrax and smallpox agents. United States intelligence agencies openly raise doubt as to whether successor Russian biological weapons programs have been completely dismantled.

Impacts and Issues

According to the United States Bureau of Arms control, as of May 2007, there were 147 countries that were parties to the Biological Weapons Convention. An additional 16 countries were listed as signatory countries who had signed, but not yet ratified, the BWC.

Recent United States intelligence estimates compiled from various agencies provide indications that some countries are still actively involved in the development of biological weapons. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment and the U.S. Department of State identify and report on states potentially developing biological weapons.


BACTERIUM: Singular form of the term bacteria— single-celled microorganisms—bacterium refers to an individual microorganism.

EXECUTIVE ORDER: Presidential orders that implement or interpret a federal statute, administrative policy, or treaty.

SPORE: A dormant form assumed by some bacteria, such as anthrax, that enable the bacterium to survive high temperatures, dryness, and lack of nourishment for long periods of time. Under proper conditions, the spore may revert to the actively multiplying form of the bacteria.

STRAIN: A subclass or a specific genetic variation of an organism.

TOXIN: A poison that is produced by a living organism.

WEAPONIZATION: The use of any bacterium, virus, or other disease-causing organism as a weapon of war. Among other terms, it is also called germ warfare, biological weaponry, and biological warfare.

Although there have been several international meetings designed to strengthen the implementation and monitoring of BWC provisions, BWC verification procedures are currently the responsibility of an ad hoc commission of scientists. Broad international efforts to coordinate and strengthen enforcement of BWC provisions remains elusive.

See AlsoBioterrorism; War and Infectious Disease.



Cole, Leonard A. The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare. New York: WH Freeman and Company, 1996.


DaSilva, E., “Biological Warfare, Terrorism, and the Biological Toxin Weapons Convention.” Electronic Journal of Biotechnology. 3(1999):1–17.

Dire, D.J., and T.W. McGovern. “CBRNE Biological Warfare Agents.” eMedicine Journal. 4(2002): 1–39.


The USA PATRIOT Act (commonly called the Patriot Act) is an acronym for the Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001. The bill was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. According to the act, research facilities that handled certain chemical and biological agents were required to institute new employee screening and security procedures.

The Patriot Act was introduced to improve counter terrorism efforts by providing law enforcement with new tools to detect and prevent terrorism. Section 817 of the USA Patriot Act is titled “Expansion of the Biological Weapons Statute” and expands on chapter 10 of title 18 in the United States Code, providing new laws designed to prevent terrorist acts involving biological weapons.

The specific changes made by the Patriot Act include making it unlawful to possess biological agents, toxins, or delivery systems unless there is a reasonably justified purpose and making it unlawful for a restricted person to possess biological agents, toxins, and delivery systems that are classified as select agents.

Laboratories that operate within the United States or that are funded by the U.S. must comply with the new regulations regarding prohibiting access to selected agents by restricted persons. Each organization is required to develop its own screening or application forms to obtain the required information on persons working (or seeking work) in their laboratories in order to certify their right to access to selected agents.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regulates “the possession, use, and transfer of select agents and toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. The CDC Select Agent Program oversees these activities and registers all laboratories and other entities in the United States of America that possess, use, or transfer a select agent or toxin.”

The U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Agriculture (USDA) published final rules for the possession, use, and transfer of select agents and toxins (42 C.F.R. Part 73, 7 C.F.R. Part 331, and 9 C.F.R. Part 121) in the Federal Register on March 18, 2005.

Web Sites

United States Department of State. “Parties and Signatories of the Biological Weapons Convention.” <> (May 25, 2007).

Paul Davies

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