Biohazard. A fermentation vat that could be used to produce biological weapons is dismantled in Iraq, 1996.

Bioweapons Protocol in Limbo

CAMBRIDGE, U.K.--Negotiations over a set of measures that would have helped ensure compliance to the 30-year-old bioweapons treaty came to an ignominious end over the weekend, casting the convention's future into doubt.

The talks in Geneva were intended to finalize a protocol to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. More than 50 nations wanted to finish the protocol this year. But last month, the U.S. delegation announced its government's staunch opposition to the measures, citing a perceived threat to national security (Science, 20 July, p. 414).

Discouraged, negotiators from the 55-odd nations set about crafting a consensus statement that would preserve the current draft protocol as a basis for future discussions. But even the "procedural document" bit the dust in the final minutes of a 4-week negotiating session that ended on 18 August. The U.S. delegation objected to language that hinted at its opposition to the protocol without noting that other countries also had reservations.

Lingering bitterness from this failure could undermine a November conference meant to take stock of potential bioweapons threats that have emerged during the past 5 years. The protocol failure "sets the scene for a difficult review conference with a lot recrimination," predicts bioweapons expert Graham Pearson of the University of Bradford, U.K.

The protocol, meanwhile, will remain in limbo unless sympathetic nations were to put it as a resolution before the United Nations General Assembly (as happened with the nuclear test ban treaty)--or, perhaps, until a biological terror is unleashed. "I hate to think you can't get countries to act unless a disaster strikes," says Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chair of the Federation of American Scientists' working group on Biological Weapons. But unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be any other force majeure to force action.

Related site

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention