The independent resource on global security

12. Chemical and biological security threats


Overview, Filippa Lentzos and Caitríona Mcleish [PDF]

I. The unfolding Covid-19 pandemic, Filippa Lentzos [PDF]

II. Biological weapon disarmament and non-proliferation, Filippa Lentzos [PDF]

III. Allegations of use of chemical weapons in Syria, Caitríona Mcleish [PDF]

IV. Use of novichok agents, Caitríona Mcleish [PDF]

V. Chemical arms control and disarmament, Caitríona Mcleish [PDF]

The unfolding Covid-19 pandemic

In 2020 the Covid-19 pandemic changed the world in a way that very few had anticipated. By the end of 2020, over 82 million cases of Covid-19 and over 1.8 million deaths had been recorded worldwide, although the actual numbers were probably considerably higher because of undiagnosed cases and generally poor Covid-19-related data. The pandemic’s global socio-economic impacts were at levels unprecedented since World War II.


According to the state of knowledge at the end of 2020 about Covid-19 and its origin, it was generally thought to be a natural disease outbreak, first detected in Wuhan, China, on the last day of 2019, although very little was known about how, where and when it started circulating. While a ‘natural spillover’ theory dominated, a more marginal theory held that the virus could have originated from a research-related incident. Identifying the source of the disease should have been a routine scientific matter; instead it became highly politicized. China in particular made significant attempts to control the pan­demic origins narrative. In May 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) was tasked with trying to establish the origin of the virus, with a WHO-led international mission to be deployed to China in early 2021.


The Covid-19 pandemic, and its public and socio-economic impacts, also threw into sharp relief a problem faced by all governments: how to successfully predict and prepare for biosecurity-related threats to citizens and to national and international security. The biological threat spectrum is complex and evolving, and includes natural disease outbreaks, the unintended conse­quences of laboratory accidents, the intentional use of disease as a weapon and, as demonstrated during the pandemic, now arguably also biological information warfare.


Biological arms control

The pandemic also significantly impacted the functioning of key biological disarma­ment and non-proliferation activities in 2020. Intersessional meetings of experts and the meeting of states parties under the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) were postponed until 2021. Nonetheless, some notable BWC-related activities and developments still took place during 2020. These included the 45th anniversary of the BWC’s entry into force, a United Nations Security Council open debate on pandemics and security in July 2020, and a new controversial UN General Assembly draft resolution on the UN Secretary-General’s Mechanism (UNSGM) for investigating allegations of use of chemical and biological weapons. 


Investigating allegations of chemical weapon use

The introduction of the UNSGM resolution by Russia was consistent with other efforts by a handful of actors, including mis­information and disinformation campaigns, to undermine and contest the authority and work of investigation teams within the Organ­isation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN. The Syrian chemical weapons investi­gations that continued in 2020, as well as other experiences, point to investigations becoming more contentious, complex and important. Divisions were also evident in the UN Security Council meetings on Syria and chemical weapons in 2020. 


Chemical arms control and disarmament

The pandemic caused the postponement of routine and other inspections by the OPCW Technical Secretariat throughout 2020. The 25th Session of the Conference of States Parties (CSP) to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) did go ahead in an adapted format, with a second part scheduled for 2021. Political divisions were again evident at the CSP and in OPCW Executive Council meetings, especially over the draft programme and budget and in relation to efforts to address the threat from chemicals that act on the central nervous system. 


As of 30 November 2020, 98.3 per cent of declared Category 1 chemical weapons (i.e. those based on chemicals in Schedule 1 of the CWC) had been destroyed under international verification. The United States remains the only declared possessor state party with chemical weapons yet to be destroyed but is expected to complete its remaining destruction activities within the current timelines. 

Dr Filippa Lentzos and Caitriona McLeish