A scientist cultures a coronavirus for research at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Development Command at Fort Detrick, Maryland, in March 2020 (VCG)
"The Ninth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) saw China's in-depth participation and utmost effort to facilitate the adoption of its outcome document," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a press conference in Beijing on December 19. "China proposed establishing a verification mechanism to ensure BWC compliance, promoting the peaceful use of biotech, and making biotech more inclusive. These proposals reflect the common will shared broadly by states parties, especially developing countries."
The BWC, which went into effect on March 26, 1975, was the first multilateral arms control agreement to outlaw the development, production, acquisition, transfer, stockpiling and use of biological and chemical weapons. As a convention of unlimited duration, the BWC had 184 states as parties, as of February 2022. It is seen as the cornerstone of global biosecurity governance, and the establishment of a verification mechanism is essential to ensure the authority and effectiveness of the convention.
The international community has been working to ensure the validity of the BWC. In a special conference in April 1994, states parties agreed to set up the Ad Hoc Group, tasked with negotiating a legally binding protocol to the BWC as a means to strengthen the convention. But at the group's last scheduled meeting in July 2001, the U.S. rejected a draft attempting to strike a compromise on disputed issues and any further protocol negotiations on the grounds that such a protocol could hurt U.S. national security and commercial interests, leading to the suspension of negotiations.
The Ninth Review Conference of the BWC, which took place in Geneva, Switzerland, from November 28 to December 16, decided to establish a working group and further strengthen the effectiveness and full compliance of the BWC through methods such as formulating legally binding measures.
Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines
During the conference, one of the contributions of the Chinese delegation was to promote the endorsement of and support for the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists by the states parties.
As the first international initiative on biosecurity to be named after a Chinese city and featuring Chinese solutions, the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines are a "timely international public product by scientists from more than 20 countries, including China, and a fascinating story of enhanced biosecurity cooperation among scientists from many countries," Li Song, Chinese Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs and head of the Chinese delegation to the conference, said.
The predecessor of the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines was the Code of Conduct for Biological Scientists, drafted by the Center for Biosafety Research and Strategy (CBRS) at Tianjin University, with support from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China. The CBRS is the first Chinese think tank focusing on biosafety strategy research and is also the first Chinese nongovernmental organization recognized by the BWC. The document was submitted to the Eighth Review Conference of the BWC in 2016 as a joint proposal of China and Pakistan, where it received widespread attention and was listed as an important issue for the 2017-22 intersessional meeting.
"The CBRS, backed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has since been promoting the guidelines under the UN framework. In 2018, we hosted an international seminar in Tianjin themed on developing a code of conduct for bioscientists, which was jointly organized by the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China. Around 100 attendees were diplomats and experts from more than 20 countries," Professor Zhang Weiwen, Director of the CBRS told Beijing Review.
At the end of 2020, the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP), an international organization of more than 140 scientific academies, reached out to CBRS at Tianjin University and proposed that the three parties collaborate to develop biosecurity guidelines for codes of conduct for scientists based on the China-Pakistan proposal to the Eighth Review Conference of the BWC, and jointly promote their accreditation at the United Nations. They also agreed the final text will be named the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines for Codes of Conduct for Scientists.
According to Zhang, during the revision of the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines and the promotion process, the CBRS participated in related UN activities and he himself went to Geneva six times to seek extensive international support and cooperation at multilateral meetings.
The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines advocate responsible bioscience research and contain 10 guiding principles and standards of conduct, which advocate raising the biosecurity awareness of researchers from aspects such as ethical standards, laws and norms, responsible conduct of research, research findings dissemination, and international cooperation.
"The current international regulatory system and governance mechanism for misuse and abuse of biotechnology are not yet complete, and scientists are at the forefront of biotechnology innovation and the first line of defense against misuse of biotechnology, so it is necessary to raise awareness of the scientific community about biosafety and biosecurity issues, promote a culture of responsibility, and develop appropriate codes of conduct. The Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines will play an important role in achieving this goal and contribute to strengthening biosecurity governance at the global level," Zhang told Beijing Review.
According to the Secretariat of the IAP, the Tianjin Biosecurity Guidelines reflect the consensus of the international scientific community and the organization is making use of its network of national academies of science to promote the guidelines.
Biosecurity knows no borders
As part of the Global Security Initiative he put forward in April, President Xi Jinping proposed that nations should stay committed to maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains, and work together on global challenges including biosecurity.
As has been seen during pandemics like COVID-19, the biosecurity threats are not limited to the disease itself, but also have a significant impact on a country's overall security, with the risks of triggering political instability and economic decline. In addressing the challenges to human health posed by biosecurity threats, only through the endeavor to build a human community with a shared future—rather than through a beggar-thy-neighbor approach or by stigmatization and demonization—can the global spread of biosecurity threats be effectively curbed.
China is not only an advocate of but also a participant in international biosecurity cooperation. The country has continuously improved the security management of its biological laboratories, and held international training courses and seminars on biosecurity laboratory management and technology to support the development of biosecurity talent pools in other developing nations. Globally, China has offered the most extensive and ongoing emergency humanitarian assistance in the face of the pandemic. More than 150 countries and 15 international organizations have received pandemic prevention supplies from China, and more than 120 nations and international organizations have received over 2.2 billion doses of vaccines.
"We are ready to work with states parties to continuously strengthen multilateral and bilateral exchanges and cooperation in biosecurity regulation, risk assessment, emergency response, information sharing and capacity building, and make new efforts for the full implementation of the BWC," Li, the Chinese ambassador, said during the General Debate of the Ninth Review Conference of the convention.
Copyedited by G.P. Wilson
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