BioPharma Tech Firms Can Help Prevent Bioweapon Production, Says UN

By Gareth Macdonald

- Last updated on GMT

Industry must ensure tech not used to make bioweapons says UN
Industry must ensure tech not used to make bioweapons says UN
Making germ warfare weapons is banned under the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) and there is no evidence signatories or even countries led by any of the World’s crackpot dictators/freedom fighters* are producing them.

But that does not mean people won't try to make bioweapons in the future according to Dr Piers Millett from the UN’s Office for Disarmament Affairs.

He told BioPharma-Reporter.com any resumption may have implications for developers of biomanufacturing techs if - for example - their systems can be used to culture Bacillus Anthracis​ instead of CHO cells. 

Most of the past examples [of biological weapons production] have ultimately included large scale production efforts similar to those found in industry​,” Dr Millett said, going on to give a number of historical examples of large-scale production efforts.

The UK built a dedicated pilot plant to produce the anthrax as part of its offensive weapons programme in the first half of last century. The US too, developed large scale capacities​,” he said adding that “reports exist that the Soviet programme developed a complex set of commercial and peaceful industrial enterprises, specifically designed to offer a breakout capacity for the large scale production of biological weapon agents at short notice​.”

This history coupled with advances like the development of modular facilities, innovations in microfluidics and disposable equipment “could have an impact on any effort in the future to develop these weapons​” according to Dr Millet, who said that industry has the chance to address such concerns.

There is an excellent opportunity for companies producing or using these technologies to help explore any possible risks of intentional misuse for malign purposes, to ensure that discussions of these risks are fact-based and accurately portray what can and what cannot be achieved using such platforms​.”

Industrial role

With Dr Millet’s comments in mind BioPharma-Reporter.com decided to ask some of the industry’s leading technology firms what steps they take to ensure their products are used to make the biopharmaceuticals of tomorrow and not the biological weapons of the past.

Petra Kirchhoff, VP of corporate communications at Sartorius AG, told us the Germany-headquartered firm strictly adheres to export laws to ensure its technologies do not end up being misused.

In line with mandatory European and International laws as well as specific German requirements, the German Federal Office of Economics and Export Control has export control policies in place that prohibit exports to defined countries and for specific uses and people​.”

She explained that Sartorius only sells technologies with ‘dual-use’ potential to trusted EU countries or those issued with general export licenses. For countries outside this group the firm seeks approval from the German the Federal Office of Economics and Export Control and has also taken the decision not to sell its technologies to customers in certain states.

We do not supply potentially dual-use products at all to countries such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Syrian Arab Republic or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea unless the end user is an international NGO or an official UN organization.

Finally, we have imposed a comprehensive compliance program that is strictly in line with the applicable export control laws, and closely cooperate with national and international authorities to prevent any illicit use of our products​.”

This was echoed by a Thermo Fisher spokesman who told us in an emailed statement that: “Thermo Fisher has a variety of processes in place to prevent inappropriate access to our products for unintended uses.  In addition, we continually monitor and comply with all applicable import/export regulations globally​.”

ATMI declined to comment directly, but did point BioPharma-Reporter.com in the direction of environmental health and safety and trade compliance policies posted on its website the latter of which references the US State Department’s International Traffic in Arms regulations​ as something with which the firm complies.

Similarly, a spokesman for Eppendorf told us that: “Unfortunately I am not able to give you a comprehensive and detailed statement about the measures Eppendorf is taking to prevent the use of our products for the production of biological weapons.

Nevertheless there are a number of regulations in place, which are described in essence in our corporate code of conduct that is a binding corporate rule for every employee within our company​.” 

September meeting

Industry’s role in making sure its systems are not misused will be discussed later this month at a meeting of co-hosted by the BWC Implementation Support Unit and the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) in Montreal, Canada on September 19 and 20.

The event – “Safeguarding the Benefits of Biotechnology” – will focus on how companies, industry associations and others can support international efforts to ensure that biotechnology is not used to cause harm.

Those wishing to participate in the event should contact ojp@habt.pu​.

*delete as is politically expedient.

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