The Fight to Ban Chemical Warfare Helped Us Battle Covid-19

In the calendar of war, April has been remembered as grim month since 1915. On April 22 of that year, German forces in World War I used lethal chlorine gas for the first time against French divisions at Ypres.

April 22 of this year was also the first anniversary of the death of the British chemist Julian Perry Robinson, a professor of science policy at the University of Sussex in England. Robinson, who died aged 78 from Covid-19, was a world authority on chemical and biological weapons and had devoted his life to pursuing international treaties to ban their use.

The chance coincidence of these two anniversaries reminds us of the urgent need to preserve and build on Robinson’s work in preparation for the next pandemic. The lessons learned from the use and control of poisonous weapons also apply to public health problems in the prevention and control of the spread of natural germs.

For almost half a century, Robinson and his American colleague the Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson led independent scientists in seeking controls on chemical and biological weapons. They tirelessly lobbied the US Congress and UK Parliament. They advised political leaders and policy-makers, and they openly encouraged the media to expose government misinformation.

The two scientists met in the late 1960s, and quickly became a political force in arms control. Meselson, already an acclaimed geneticist, advised President Nixon on biological weapons through his former Harvard colleague, Henry Kissinger, then national security adviser.

In Britain, Robinson, then known as the lead author on a seminal history of chemical and biological weapons, nurtured valuable sources both in government and among anti-war and pro-science activists in Europe and America, securing the trust of each. In the 1970s, an American arms control official broke protocol on a visit to London and sought out Robinson over his British counterparts. Eyebrows were raised in the UK Foreign Office.

The Biological Weapons Convention banning germ warfare was signed in 1972 and is now ratified by 183 states. The Chemical Weapons Convention banning poisons was signed in 1997 and is now ratified by 193 nations.

Meselson and Robinson were effective because they relied on scholarly, science-based research, independent of the groupthink of government and public organizations. Under the banner of the Harvard-Sussex Program on arms control, they created a unique database on the history and use of poison weapons. It is the most important independent archive of its kind anywhere in the world

They published a related quarterly, the CBW Conventions Bulletin, that with Robinson’s forensic analyses of weapons and allegations of their use distinguished their research from other scientists.

They explored still unanswered questions about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the Russian use of so-called Novichok nerve gas as an assassination weapon. As Meselson, now 90, told me, “If policy-makers are not fully informed about the origin of things, they might make false steps. This kind of information is like protective armor to prevent wars being triggered by false information.”

The international response to the Covid pandemic has underscored the need for such expert, independent scientific voices. As we have seen, the rapid spread of disease quickly breeds misinformation and disinformation.

This threatens to undermine the efforts of both international public health institutions, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), and state institutions such as the US Center for Disease Control and similar centers in Europe and Africa.

At the best of times, these efforts tend to move slowly, often hobbled by political concerns. One example is the delay in acknowledging how Covid can be spread through aerosols—small particles of exhaled air from infected people. Those organizations first advised that the main method of transmission were the big droplets from coughing or sneezing that remain suspended in the air for no more than six feet. But aerosols stay airborne for longer and can infect people over greater distances—up to 60 feet indoors.

A change of advice from the WHO and the CDC came only after months of internal debate and a public outcry about the effect of aerosols from more than 200 scientists, published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.

It was not by chance that Meselson was one of the first scientists to call attention to aerosols. He had studied their effect years ago when they were the chosen method of delivery for biological weapons developed in Japan, Britain, the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union.

Meselson had used his knowledge of aerosol dispersal to conclude that the 1979 outbreak of anthrax in Sverdlovsk was the result of a leak from an illegal biological weapons facility, not from the consumption of contaminated meat as claimed by the Soviets.

Efforts to prevent and treat the spread of Covid-19 have resulted in a sudden burst of activity in the life sciences. It is more important than ever to ensure that those advances in detecting new pathogens are not used for military purposes as well as for public health. The Harvard Sussex program was originally designed to advise policy-makers on how to meet that goal.

The so-called dual-use of scientific research has always been a concern for the public health community, and any new pandemic treaty would have to review safety standards in civilian as well as military laboratories. In both labs, “biosafety” (preventing accidental or negligent release) and “biosecurity” (preventing unauthorized access) are primary concerns. In the military labs, secret defensive research isn’t banned under the Biological Weapons Convention, and there can be a fine line between defensive and offensive research. The treaty’s periodic reviews are meant to rely on states submitting their own reports on this issue, but only half them have cooperated.

Meselson and Robinson recognized the public health connection long ago. In 1970 and 2004, they made important contributions to the WHO’s published guidance on how to cope with the catastrophic aftermath of a chemical or biological attack, whether natural, deliberate, or accidental.

Last month, European leaders launched the idea for a new pandemic treaty, a move supported by the WHO and countries in Africa, Asia, and South America. Any such treaty would need the backing of the United States and China and would likely take years to complete. A treaty would also need the input of independent data banks and researchers, who historically have been key to building new international agreements.

The Harvard Sussex program is just such a unit. As a first step to preserving the data bank, Robinson’s colleagues have presented proposals to Sussex University to build on this extraordinary history of the use of poisons in war. Now they want to broaden its data collection and advisory role to help prepare for the next pandemic and a new global treaty. Without further support, the future of this valuable research project is at risk.

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Peter Pringle