The independent resource on global security

12. Chemical, biological and health security threats


Overview, Filippa Lentzos and Una Jakob

I. The unfolding Covid-19 pandemic, Filippa Lentzos

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

III. Allegations of chemical weapons use in Syria, Una Jakob

IV. Chemical arms control and disarmament, Una Jakob

The continuing Covid-19 pandemic

By the end of 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported over 286 million cases of Covid-19 worldwide and over 5.4 million recorded deaths. The actual numbers were likely to be consider-ably higher. The origins of the pandemic continued to be a politically divisive subject. A joint WHO–China report in March 2021 concluded that of four origin hypotheses the ‘most likely’ pathway was that the virus jumped from one animal species to another before infecting people. However, the report was heavily criticized and the WHO concluded that all theories remained open. A new WHO advisory group was established and is expected to play a vital role in the next phase of origin studies.


The impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic have shown that the international community needs to be much better prepared in responding to possible future pandemics. In December 2021 the World Health Assembly agreed to start a global process on a new international treaty to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response.


Biological arms control

Meetings of experts and states parties under the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) that had been postponed due to the pandemic in 2020 were held in 2021. While these meetings revealed areas of broad agreement among states on how best to strengthen the BWC, they also demonstrated significant areas of disagreement, with broader geopolitical tensions among China, Russia and the United States affecting the discussions. Finding sufficient common ground to success-fully negotiate substantive out-comes at the Ninth Review Conference in 2022 will be challenging, but with each of the three states articulating plans that address issues of compliance, transparency and accountability there is potential for a workable compromise solution.


Chemical arms control and disarmament

Disagreements within the framework of the BWC were largely mirrored in the 2021 discussions under the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). There were continuing efforts by a handful of actors to undermine and contest the authority and work of investigation teams of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the United Nations. The chemical weapons investigations in Syria continued. Although no new instances of chemical weapons use were reported in 2021, from a total of 80 cases investigated so far, chemical weapons use has now been confirmed or is suspected in 20 cases. By the end of 2021, the OPCW said Syria’s declarations continued to contain ‘identified gaps, inconsistencies, and discrepancies’.


The poisoning of Russian citizen Alexei Navalny with a novichok nerve agent in August 2020 had still not been officially investigated or resolved by the end of 2021, and it continued to cause political tensions between Russia and several Western countries.


The USA is the only declared possessor state party to the CWC with chemical weapons yet to be destroyed. It is expected to complete its remaining destruction activities by the end of 2023.

Dr Filippa Lentzos