Technical experts and scientists convene in India for multistakeholder discussions on the benefits and risks of advancements in science and technology for the Biological Weapons Convention ahead of Review Conference

November 18th, 2022

As part of the activities conducted under EU Council Decision 2021/2072, and in preparation for the Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), the UNODA Geneva Branch, in cooperation with the Ministry of External Affairs of India and the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), organized an International Science and Technology Conference entitled “Advancements in Science and Technology: Benefits and Risks for the BWC.”

The Conference was held in New Delhi, India, on 11-12 October 2022 in a hybrid mode. A total of 56 participants (27 women and 29 men) from science, academia, intergovernmental organizations, and the private sector attended the conference, as well as experts from the Governments of North Macedonia, Switzerland, Philippines, the United Kingdom, the United States, and representatives from UNODA, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research, and the World Health Organization.

The multistakeholder event provided a platform for technical experts and scientists to learn from each other, engage with UNODA staff, and discuss how the S&T community can strengthen the BWC regime and foster innovative approaches to new and emerging challenges in the realm of bio risks and biosecurity.

Ms. Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, opened the event by drawing attention to the need to bridge the gaps between the scientific and diplomatic communities on matters concerning the BWC, and to broaden the engagement of the industry and academia in this regard. She emphasised that “bringing together subject matter experts, along with diplomats and policymakers, has historically been critical to enhance implementation, dialogue and common understanding” while also allowing “a better assessment of how existing norms could be strengthened without obstructing scientific progress.” She encouraged the participants to take advantage of the S&T conference as an “opportunity to exchange insights and incentives” in order to “move towards the Ninth Review Conference with some concrete recommendations and ideas.”

Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affaires opened the conference through a pre-recorded video message

Ambassador Leonardo Bencini of Italy, President-Designate of the Review Conference, also made introductory remarks, stressing that S&T Conference was a unique opportunity to inform States Parties and other stakeholders of the risks and opportunities that advances in science and technology pose to the BWC. He encouraged participants to share “ideas to better advise the diplomatic level and decision makers on innovative ways to strengthen global biosecurity norms and the BWC overall and develop practical tools to uphold them.” 

This was followed by remarks by Mr. Seppo Nurmi, Deputy Head of the European Union (EU) Delegation to India, who underscored the relevance of the S&T event, which fitted the EU’s longstanding “support towards strengthening the BWC implementation”.  He reiterated the EU’s engagement in international efforts to improve biosafety and biosecurity around the globe and noted the “excellent the cooperation with UNODA” in this regard. Mr. Nurmi added that “among the most pressing decisions that the Review Conference should take are the establishment of a S&T review mechanism within the Convention and decide on a code of conduct for scientists”, so that the Convention will be able to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Mr. Seppo Nurmi, Deputy Head of the European Union (EU) Delegation to India

Mr. Maitrey Kulkarni, Acting Director, Disarmament & International Security Affairs Division, Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India, delivered a statement on behalf of Joint Secretary Ms. Muanpuii Saiawi, noting  that “against the backdrop of S&T advances, there are emerging risks in life science, research and innovation raising ethical and political concerns” and a need “to fully understand the challenges to existing governance and arms control approaches arising from the dual-use nature of the technological innovations in the life sciences. In this context, Mr. Kulkarni encouraged participants to consider how instruments such as the BWC can improve and adapt to safely and securely support the peaceful exploitation of biotechnology.

Ambassador Sujan Chinoy, Director General of the Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, welcomed participants to the MP-IDSA premises and recalled that the Institute hosted a conference in 2016 in preparation for the Convention’s Eighth Review Conference. He noted the “timely and pressing need in the post-pandemic era to reorient the current regime by focusing on the complexity of contemporary threats and the BWC capacity to deal with biological threats and the S&T” as matters of perennial importance 

Mr. Daniel Feakes, Chief of the BWC Implementation Support Unit, closed the opening session by recalling the relevance of the BWC as an international treaty that “lies at the intersection of science and diplomacy” and that “every single one of its main articles is rooted in science.” He stressed the critical role of scientists, “particularly when it comes to implementing the BWC at the national level”.

Throughout the conference, the participants discussed advancements and developments in science and technology while addressing security, safety and ethical concerns, along with ways to develop a robust science-policy interface. They discussed topics such as synthetic biology, immunology, neuroscience, human genetics, biorisk surveillance, verification and mitigation, as well as emerging trends in artificial intelligence, machine learning and cyber-biosecurity.

During the thematic sessions, participants explored ways to address major challenges, including how to tailor expert advice to inform S&T policy, decision making and deliberations and to improve dialogue and communication to boost decision makers’ engagement in S&T discussions. Experts from industry and academia highlighted the need for moving towards a multisectoral approach in understanding complex synergies across science and technology applications and examining associated risks and benefits to the BWC in a holistic manner.

In this regard, scientific credibility, communication, and funding were pointed out as critical aspects to bridge gaps and enable more resources to be allocated to support BWC universalization, implementation, and capacity building activities. Participants also emphasised the challenges at both regional and national levels in advancing biosecurity and biosafety, and the role of civil society in awareness raising and advocacy activities.

Youth and gender dimensions were also discussed, with a dedicated poster session led by young scientists, some of whom had participated to the Youth Biosecurity Diplomacy workshops organized by UNODA.

Poster session participants