Below the headlines: CBW matters (15)

(A weekly digest from the internet on chemical and biological warfare issues. Emphasis is on incidents and perspectives, but inclusion of an item does not equal endorsement or agreement with the contents. This issue covers items collected between 22 – 28 May 2017.)

CBW disarmament

  • Chemical weapons storage passes treaty inspection (The Register, 21 May 2017): Inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons visited the Blue Grass Chemical Activity at Blue Grass Army Depot, May 12-17, to perform a systematic stockpile verification inspection, an annual process that has been taking place for 20 years. The inspection team assured accountability of every chemical weapon declared to be in storage at the depot as part of the U.S. compliance with the Chemical Weapons Convention, according to a Friday news release from BGCA.
  • No chemical warfare training material found on ex-base (Dave Hinton, 23 May 2017): No evidence of formal chemical warfare training was found during an extensive investigation of a site on the former Chanute Air Force Base. Paul Carroll, base alignment and closure coordinator for the former base, told members of the Chanute Restoration Advisory Board at its semi-annual meeting last week that during a recent search period, 100 metallic items — or “anomalies” —  were found, but all but one were “likely related to construction debris.”
  • Liu Lihua Meets with Director General of the OPCW (Top-News, 24 May 2017): On May 18, 2017, the Vice Minister of Industry and Information Technology, Liu Lihua, held talks with the Director General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in Ahmed Yusum, held in The Hague, the Netherlands, on the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.
  • To Safely Dispose Of Chemical Weapons, The U.S. Army Has Developed Some Next-Level Tools (Mark Wallace, 24 May 2017): Getting rid of lethal chemicals encased in explosive shells is no simple task. For decades, the U.S. simply buried or burned its old or unwanted chemical munitions. But new environmental laws passed in the 1990s mandated that a more responsible approach be taken. Now the U.S. Army, which is responsible for the task, is using two state-of-the-art pilot plants in Kentucky and Colorado to dispose of what remains of the more than 30,000 tons of chemical weapons the U.S. produced in the 20th century. And if all goes according to plan, the plants won’t be needed once they finish the job. About 90% of the U.S. stockpile has been disposed of since 1997, mostly through incineration, but some 2,600 tons of munitions and chemical agents remain at the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado, and another 523 tons are at the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky.
  • Indonesia pushes for universalization of convention of chemical weapons (Antara News, 25 May 2017): The Indonesian Government has pushed for universalization of convention on chemical weapons through promotion of international cooperation. In cooperation with Organization on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Indonesia has organized a Regional Forum of the Signatories of the Convention on Chemical Weapons in Asia Pacific to discuss issues related Assistance and Protection for Opposition to Chemical Weapons, a press release issued by the Foreign Ministry said here on Wednesday.
  • Cambodia establishes committee for destruction of chemical weapons/war remnants (Khmer Times, 27 May 2017): Cambodia’s Deputy PM and Defence minister Tea Banh held a meeting with the concerned ministers, seeking ways on how to address the long-time impacts of  chemical weapons and war remnants. The committee will set up its team and seek ways on  how to destroy  chemical weapons found in  Sen Monorom in O Raing Ov district, located in the  North-eastern province  of  Mondulkiri, along the  border with Vietnam.

CBW use

  • Status update of the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission in Syria regarding a reported incident in Khan Shaykhun, 4 April 2017 (S/2017/440) (ReliefWeb, 19 May 2017)
  • Evidence of ‘Sulfur Mustard’, Exposure to Sarin, Found in Samples from Alleged Syria Chemical Attacks, Disarmament Affairs Chief Tells Security Council (UN Security Council summary report, 23 May 2017): Initial findings from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) fact-finding mission in Syria had found evidence of sulfur mustard in samples taken from an alleged attack on 16 September 2016, while analysis of samples collected in relation to an alleged April incident in Khan Shaykhoun had revealed exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance, the United Nations disarmament chief reported today. “This is an issue about which the United Nations cannot be neutral,” Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, declared in a briefing to the Security Council. Addressing members for the first time since her recent appointment, she emphasized that the use of chemical weapons by any actor — whether Government forces, terrorist factions or armed opposition groups — could never be justified, regardless of provocation or circumstance.
  • Samples from alleged chemical attacks in Syria reveal evidence of sulfur mustard, sarin – UN official (UN Press, 23 May 2017): A fact-finding mission in Syria has found evidence of sulfur mustard in samples taken from an alleged attack on 16 September 2016, while samples from a 4 April incident have revealed exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance, the United Nations disarmament chief told the Security Council today. It has also received biological-environmental samples from dead animals reported to have been close to the suspected impact point, attended the autopsies of three alleged victims, and witnessed the extraction of biomedical samples from their bodies. She, however, emphasized that all materials and information collected were currently being analyzed, thus not final.
  • UN: chemical experts found sarin exposure in Syria attack (Edith M. Lederer, 23 May 2017): A team from the international chemical weapons watchdog found exposure “to sarin or a sarin-like substance” in samples from an April 4 attack in northern Syria that killed over 90 people and now wants to visit the opposition-held town of Khan Sheikhoun, a senior U.N. official said Tuesday. U.N. disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu told the U.N. Security Council that the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons also submitted a report into the alleged use of chemical weapons near Um Hosh in the Aleppo countryside on Sept. 16, 2016 which indicated the use of “sulfur mustard.”
  • UN seeks security for Syria gas attacks investigators (AFP, 23 May 2017): The United Nations is working to obtain security assurances needed to dispatch an international team of experts to the site of last month’s suspected sarin gas attack in Syria, a UN official said Tuesday. UN disarmament chief Izumi Nakamitsu told the Security Council that planning for the fact-finding mission to Khan Sheikhun was “already underway,” but no date has been set. The team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) would deploy to an area under opposition control to collect samples and testimony from witnesses.
  • Sarin used in Syria attack on civilians – study (Mel Frykberg, 24 May 2017): A fact-finding mission in Syria has found evidence of sulfur mustard in samples taken from an alleged attack on September 16, 2016, while samples from a April 4 incident have revealed exposure to sarin or a sarin-like substance, the United Nations disarmament chief has told the UN Security Council. “We must not allow ourselves to become inured to the ongoing allegations of the use of chemical weapons. This is an issue about which the United Nations cannot be neutral,” Izumi Nakamitsu, High Representative for Disarmament Affairs, said on Tuesday in her first briefing to the Security Council since her appointment.
  • U.N. disarmament head gives first briefing on Syria chemical weapons (Kyodo, 24 May 2017): NEW YORK – Izumi Nakamitsu, the United Nations’ new head of disarmament, gave her first briefing to the 15-member Security Council on Tuesday, focusing on the latest developments on chemical weapons in Syria. As the high representative for disarmament affairs, the Japanese is in charge of a wide-ranging portfolio that includes nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation, weapons of mass destruction, and chemical and biological weapons. Nakamitsu, who officially took over from predecessor Kim Won-soo of South Korea on May 1, will present monthly briefings to the council on efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program and updates on the activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the U.N. Joint Investigative Mechanism.
  • Russian Foreign Ministry: OPCW not rushing to investigate chemical incident in Syria (Tass, 25 May 2017): Shirking of full-scale investigation of the situations where nerve gas was used in Syria casts doubts over the ability of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a comment on Thursday. “It looks like no one is in a hurry to go to Khan Sheykhun for verification of the details of a case as resounding as this one,” it said. “It is really saddening that the the OPCW mission does not show activity in what concerns the establishing of cases of chemical weapons utilization, as it puts off a trip to Khan Sheykhun time and again, making references to unfavorable security conditions,” the ministry said.
  • Moscow says all conditions are there for OPCW inspection at Shayrat airbase (Tass, 26 May 2017): All the conditions have been set up at the Shayrat airbase in Syria in terms of security so that experts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) could make a trip there, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a commentary on Thursday.
  • OPCW discredits itself by dodging proper Syria chemical attack probe – Moscow (RT, 26 May 2017): Russia has demanded the immediate dispatch of an independent fact-finding mission to the site of last month’s chemical incident in Idlib and the airbase from where the attack was allegedly launched, noting that constant delays discredit the OPCW and render its mandate irrelevant.
  • A piece of wet towel: Best tool Syrians use to avoid sarin gas (TRT, 27 May 2017): Children in Syria are learning what to do in the event of a chemical weapons attack. Now, a class taught by volunteer emergency response teams is hoping to provide children with the tools for survival.

Other CBW-related incidents

  • Israeli Colonists Uproot Grapevines, Spray Toxins (IMEMC, 21 May 2017): Illegal Israeli colonists invaded, Sunday, Palestinian lands in the al-Khader town, south of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, uprooted dozens of recently planted grapevines and sprayed at least 300 vines with toxins.

CBW threats

  • Daesh Experiments With Nicotine, Thallium Part of ‘Larger Chemical Arms Program’ (Sputnik, 25 May 2017): Daesh is reported to have used thallium sulfate and a nicotine-based compound to poison its prisoners in a bid to obtain readily available toxic chemicals as part of a larger weapons program, an expert on chemical and biological weapons at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies of Bar Ilan University, Dr. Dany Shoham, told Radio Sputnik.

CBW defence, protection and preparedness

  • Trump Reportedly Considering New Cuts to Biomedical Research (Ed Yong, 17 May 2017): Two months ago, the Trump administration unveiled its so-called “skinny budget,” which envisioned cutting funds for the National Institutes of Health by 18 percent, or $5.8 billion. Scientists were appalled. As my colleague Adrienne LaFrance reported, one doctor said that the cuts “would set off a lost generation in American science.” The bulked-up version of the President’s budget for fiscal year 2018, which will be released next week, may not allay those fears. According to two sources within the NIH who were briefed on the issue, the administration may pursue a new strategy in its quest for cuts, by proposing a 10 percent cap on the NIH’s indirect costs—the money it gives to grantees to support administration, equipment, libraries, IT, lighting, heating, electricity, and other overhead.
  • Lab at Fort Detrick faces closing under proposed federal budget (Danielle E. Gaines, 24 May 2017): A research laboratory in Frederick with few peers across the country would be closed under the proposed budget from President Donald Trump. While the overall spending for the Department of Homeland Security increases in Trump’s budget request, that department also zeroes out funding for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) at Fort Detrick.
  • Scientists find simple copper complex shuts down botulinum neurotoxin poisoning (PhysOrg, 24 May 2017): Botulinum neurotoxin is probably best known to Americans as BOTOX, a cosmetic medicine, rather than as a cause of potentially dangerous foodborne illnesses. Lesser known is that Clostridium botulinum, the bacterium that causes the neurointoxication, produces one of the most potent toxins on earth and is classified as a potential bioterrorism threat. While no cure exists—and botulism treatment options are limited—a serendipitous discovery by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) may provide a new therapy that can stop the neurotoxin even in its more severe, advanced stages of action. The finding, based on rodent studies, was published recently in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
  • Biodefense plan requires U.S. cabinet-level oversight coupled with global financial strategy (Kim Riley, 26 May 2017): A leadership spot at the highest level in the United States government would be best positioned to harness and focus available resources and influence governors and the private sector on a common biodefense vision, a Texas A&M University (TAMU) international affairs expert said this week. “The growing threat of emerging infectious diseases with pandemic potential, as well as the real threat of bioterrorism demand more focused leadership attention to overcome barriers to real progress,” Andrew Natsios, executive professor and director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs at TAMU’s Bush School of Government and Public Service, told Homeland Prep News on Thursday.
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About JP Zanders

Jean Pascal Zanders (Belgium) has worked on questions of chemical and biological weapon (CBW) armament and disarmament since 1986. He was CBW Project Leader at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Director of the BioWeapons Prevention Project and Senior Research Fellow responsible for disarmament, arms control and non-proliferation questions at the European Union Institute for Security Studies. He now owns and runs The Trench.