The independent resource on global security

9. Chemical, biological and health security threats


Overview, Filippa Lentzos and Una Jakob

I. Allegations of and reactions to chemical weapon use, Una Jakob

II. Chemical weapon control and disarmament, Una Jakob

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

IV. Health security, Filippa Lentzos

In 2023, proceedings in the main international forums on the prevention of chemical and biological warfare were characterized by obstruction and disinformation by a small number of states. This contrasted with some positive achievements in the field of health security.


Chemical arms control

Investigations by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) into alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria continued in 2023 amid ongoing efforts by a handful of actors to hinder and contest the authority and work of the investigation teams. None of the 20 outstanding issues related to Syria’s declarations to the OPCW that were unresolved at the end of 2022 could be clarified in 2023. There were also further allegations of illegal chemical activities, including the use by Russia of riot control agents as a method of warfare. These allegations and the divisions over the investigation into chemical weapon use in Syria are likely to continue to have an impact on and complicate the work of the OPCW. At the fifth Review Conference of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention the states parties could not reach consensus on a substantive final document, but they made progress in several areas, including adjustments to industry verification, geographical representation, and efforts to prevent and counter chemical terrorism.


In a historic step, the United States, the only declared possessor state party with declared chemical weapons still to be destroyed, completed its remaining destruction activities in July 2023. On another positive note, the OPCW’s new Centre for Chemistry and Technology was formally inaugurated in May 2023. Despite the prevailing political polarization, the OPCW’s ongoing activities on verification and on international cooperation and assistance will continue.


Biological arms control

Russia’s allegations of other states’ non-compliance with the ban on biological weapons and its misuse of disarmament instruments for its own disinformation purposes continued in all relevant forums in 2023. Russia’s conduct risks significantly eroding the international architecture against the proliferation and use of biological weapons and diverting attention from the work of strengthening the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC). Nonetheless, several proposals on compliance and verification, some old and some new, were discussed in 2023. The newly established working group on strengthening the BWC met three times during the year, although no collective conclusions or concrete recommendations were forthcoming.


Health security

A combination of national and collaborative efforts meant that 2023 was a record year for infectious disease elimination. The two public health emergencies of international concern active at the start of the year—Covid-19 and mpox—were both declared to have ended. The origins of the Covid-19 pandemic remained unresolved, but negotiations on a new international treaty to strengthen pandemic prevention, preparedness and response continued.

Dr Filippa Lentzos and Dr Una Jakob