Below the headlines: CBW matters (16)

(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 29 May – 4 June 2017.)

CBW disarmament

  • OPCW team inspects Roxy Paints factory (BSS, 28 May 2017): A two-member inspection team of Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has visited the Roxy Paints Limited, 1st Unit at Hazaribag in the capital [of Bangladesh] and inspected the factory.
  • Russia Destroys Nearly 99% of Chemical Weapon Stockpile Under CWC – Official (Sputnik, 30 May 2017): The head of the Russian Ministry of Industry’s Department of Conventional Obligations Realization and Trade said that Russia has destroyed nearly 99 percent of its chemical weapon stockpile over the past 20 years.
  • Asian States Parties Pledge Closer Cooperation at Regional Meeting in Dubai
    (OPCW, 1 June 2017): National Authorities of OPCW Member States from Asia commemorated the 20th anniversary of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) at their 15th Regional Meeting held in Dubai, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), from 16 to 18 May. During the meeting, over 40 participants from 29 Asian States Parties pledged to foster robust cooperation practices that will further aid the effective implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The participants also used this opportunity to discuss national implementation achievements made over the past 20 years, shared experiences, best practices, and emerging challenges to the Convention.
  • Status of contributions (BWC Implementation Support Unit, 31 May 2017): The Financial Resources Management Service of the United Nations Office at Geneva has provided a summary of the financial contributions to the four disarmament conventions, as of 31 May 2017. Detailed information pertaining to the contributions to the BWC is contained in Annex II of the document.
  • Informal meeting on 2017 MSP (BWC Implementation Support Unit, 1 June 2017): The BWC Depositary Governments, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the United States of America will convene an informal meeting on 7 June to discuss organizational issues for the 2017 Meeting of States Parties. More details are provided in a letter circulated by the ISU.

CW use in Syria

  • Russian Forces Have, most likely, Supported the Syrian Regime Forces in Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack (Syrian Network for Human Rights, 29 May 2017): SNHR has released a report entitled: “Russian Forces Have, most likely, Supported the Syrian Regime Forces in Khan Sheikhoun Chemical Attack”, which documents the details of the chemical attacks Syrian regime forces carried out in Khan Sheikhoun city in southern suburbs of Idlib on April 4, 2017, and the Russian attacks that followed. The report notes that SNHR has released 25 reports on the use of chemical weapons in Syria, in which we outlined all the documented attacks which amount to 33 attacks before Security Resolution 2118, adopted on September 27, 2013, 169 attacks after Security Council Resolution 2118, including 100 attacks after Resolution 2209, which was adopted on March 6, 3015, and 44 attacks after Resolution 2235, which was adopted on August 7, 2015. (Full report here.)
  • Macron warns over Syrian chemical weapons in frank meeting with Putin (Angelique Chrisafis, 29 May 2017): Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, has warned that France would respond immediately to any use of chemical weapons in Syria, while urging a closer partnership with Russia in fighting Islamic State (Isis) in the country. “A very clear red line exists on our side – that is the use of chemical weapons by whomever,” Macron said at a joint news conference after his first meeting with the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin.
  • French President Macron blasts Russian state-owned media as ‘propaganda’ (James McAuley, 29 May 2017): French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a blunt greeting to Vladimir Putin on Monday, criticizing the use of chemical weapons by Syria’s Russian-backed government and blasting two Russian state-owned media organizations as “organs of influence and propaganda.”
  • Russian diplomat comments on OPCW work on Syrian chemical weapons issue (Tass, 30 May 2017): The activities of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concerning Syria’s chemical weapons issue raise questions, Deputy Director of the Armaments Non-Proliferation and Control Department at the Russian Foreign Ministry Vladislav Antonyuk said on Tuesday. The diplomat pointed out that two OPCW special missions had been tackling the Syrian chemical weapons issue, one of which “was set up upon the initiative of the United States and like-minded countries.” “Unfortunately, we failed to block this decision,” Antonyuk said.
  • Putin: ‘No proof’ Assad behind chemical weapons assault (Times of Israel staff and Agencies, 30 May 2017): Russian president says West is blaming Syrian ruler for gas attack in order ‘to continue to impose measures to pressure’ regime.
  • OPCW: Stopping Chemical Warfare (Susanne Dambeck, 1 June 2017): More than one hundred years after the first massive chemical attack, chemical warfare has lost none of its horror: as recently as on 4 April 2017, the town of Khan Shaykhun in western Syria suffered a severe chemical attack with nerve gases including sarin: more than 70 victims were killed and hundreds injured. The pictures of the dead children of Khan Shaykhun moved the world and led to an US airstrike against Syrian government forces. The Khan Shaykhun attack was the deadliest use of nerve gas in Syria since the 2013 chemical attack on Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. The death toll then ranged from hundreds to thousands. Both towns had been held by rebel forces at the time of the attacks. This horrific event in August 2013 set in motion a massive train of events.
  • Putin: Syria chemical attack was provocation against Assad (Ian Phillips and Vladimir Isachenkov, 2 June 2017): Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Friday that the Syrian leader didn’t use chemical weapons against his people, saying the recent attack that killed scores of civilians was a “provocation” against President Bashar Assad. Speaking at an economic forum in St. Petersburg on Friday, Putin made one of his strongest rejections of blaming Assad’s forces for the chemical attack in April. The attack in northern Syria killed at least 90, including many children. It was followed by an unprecedented U.S. strike on a Syrian air base from which aircraft suspected of being involved in the chemical raid took off.
  • Syria has neither chemical weapons nor facilities to make them – al-Assad (Tass, 3 June 2017): Syria has neither chemical weapons nor facilities to manufacture them, President Bashar al-Assad said in an interview with Indian WION news channel. SANA news agency released the text of the interview on Saturday. Al-Assad claims that behind the chemical attack in the town of Khan-Shaykhun on April 4 were “the United States and the Western intelligence with the terrorists. They staged this play just to have a pretext to attack Syria, and that’s what happened a few days later when they attacked our airport.”
  • Moscow urges sending OPCW team to site of presumed Syrian chemical attacks — diplomat (Tass, 3 June 2017): Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that data gathered by experts as a result of such investigation will be more reliable than reports obtained remotely.

Other CBW-related incidents

  • The women accused of killing Kim Jong-nam (BBC, 28 May 2017): The murder of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of North Korea’s leader, is likely to go down as one of the most notorious in history. Two women are now facing trial in Malaysia for it. Nga Pham of BBC Vietnamese and Rebecca Henschke of BBC Indonesian piece together their story.
  • Trial of Kim Jong Nam murder suspects moved to higher court (Associated Press, 29 May 2017): The murder trial of the only two suspects arrested in the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half brother was transferred to another Malaysian court Tuesday.
  • Kim Jong Nam murder suspect asks her parents to pray for her (Eileen Ng, 30 May 2017): A suspect in the poisoning death of the North Korean leader’s half brother wrote to her parents from jail, asking them to pray for her but saying “don’t think about me too much.” Siti Aisyah, an Indonesian mother who worked in Malaysia, appeared in court Tuesday along with a second suspect, Doan Thi Huong of Vietnam. Their trial was formally transferred to the High Court as the lower court had no jurisdiction to hear a murder case.
  • Iraq to probe use of white phosphorus in Mosul (Osama Bin Javaid, 3 June 2017): Video images from Saturday’s battles show highly incendiary munitions used against ISIL in western Mosul. Iraqi officials have said they will investigate allegations that their forces used white phosphorus against areas held by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group in western Mosul.
  • White phosphorus allegedly used by military in western Mosul’s embattled areas (Rudaw, 4 June 2017): Iraq is now investigating the use of white phosphorus munitions allegedly used by security forces in west Mosul during battles to retake the remaining four districts ISIS still partially controls.

CBW Armament

  • Isis tests chemical weapons on ‘human guinea pigs’, secret documents reveal (Greg Wilford, 21 May 2017): Isis are conducting chemical weapons experiments on “human guinea pigs” before launching attacks on Western targets, according to secret documents. The extremist group has reportedly poisoned prisoners by spiking their food and water with compounds used in pesticides that are easy to obtain. Security forces now fear the terror network may hatch a twisted plot to contaminate Western food supplies with formulas that quickly dissolve in liquid. The experiments were recorded in a stash of papers found hidden in Mosul University after Iraqi special forces recaptured the city from IS fighters.
  • How Assad regime built chemical arsenal with aid of Germany and other countries (René Backmann, 2 June 2017): Russia, Armenia and the former West Germany were all major suppliers of technology and raw materials for Syria’s programme of chemical weapon production, exiled Syrians who worked on the project have told Mediapart. They also say that, in violation of intentional law, the Damascus regime still has a secret arsenal of up to 35 tonnes of chemical weapons. A number of countries, including Russia, Armenia and Germany, have helped supply technology and raw materials used in Syria’s chemical weapons programme, including the production of sarin gas, Mediapart can reveal. Syrian experts who worked on the programme and who are now in exile have described how young scientists were sent to train in the former West Germany to learn how to run chemical production facilities. They also claim that one Germany company that supplied raw materials for the Syrian regime “cannot not have known” that they were destined for use in chemical weapons. These latest claims follow revelations from Mediapart via those same scientists that dictator Bashar al-Assad first made plans to use chemical weapons against his own people in 2009 – two years before the start of the civil war.

CBW threats

  • Chemical weapons in focus at NATO Conference in Helsinki (YLE, 29 May 2017): Finland is hosting an annual NATO Conference on Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), Arms Control, Disarmament and Non-proliferation. One of the most burning issues under discussion is the use of chemical weapons in Syria. North Korea and nuclear disarmament are also on the agenda of the two-day gethering opened by Foreign Minister Timo Soini on Monday. The conference, with its stated aim of ensuring a better understanding of global security challenges, has drawn around 100 participants from nearly 50 NATO and NATO-partner countries, as well as international organisations.
  • Finland hosts annual NATO conference on proliferation challenges (NATO, 30 May 2017): More than 100 high-level officials and experts from over 50 countries and international organisations met in Helsinki from 29 to 30 May 2017 to discuss multilateral non-proliferation regimes and initiatives in view of a changing security environment. They also addressed regional proliferation challenges in the Middle East and in Asia, as well as NATO’s policies and other international organisations’ efforts in the area of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) arms control and disarmament.

Dual-use technologies

  • Digital-to-Biological Converter for On-Demand Production of Biologics Developed by Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (SynBioBeta, 29 May 2017): Synthetic Genomics, Inc. announced today the publication of a peer reviewed article describing the development and operation of its digital-to-biological converter (DBC) prototype that produced biologic compounds on-demand without any human intervention. The DBC integrates many of the synthetic biology tools developed by Synthetic Genomics for creating high fidelity and complex synthetic DNA all in one fully automated unit.
  • CRISPR May Not Be Nearly as Precise as We Thought (Kristen V. Brown, 30 May 2017): The revolutionary gene-editing technology CRISPR-Cas9 is often described as “molecular scissors” for its ability to turn previously improbable feats of genetic engineering into exercises in cutting and pasting. But while over the last few years CRISPR has become so commonplace that even middle school students are now using it, a study out this week in the journal Nature Methods reminds us that it’s still a nascent technology with a long way to go before we can freely cut and paste human DNA at will.
  • Synthetic Biology and the Chem/Bio Threat (Steven Aftergood, 30 May 2017): Synthetic biology, a set of technologies related to the design and fabrication of biological systems, poses an emerging hazard but also provides the tools to mitigate that hazard, according to a new DoD report to Congress on defense against chemical and biological (CB) weapons. The new report “assesses DoD’s overall readiness to fight and win in a CB warfare environment.”

History

  • Gas Girls’ World War Two tale to be staged at Blakehay Theatre in Weston-super-Mare (North Somerset Times, 29 May 2017): The story of women who worked in factories filling shells with deadly mustard gas during World War Two will be told in a show at Weston-super-Mare’s Blakehay Theatre.
  • Did ‘dirty war’ tactics kill more guerrillas in Rhodesia than conventional military units? (M. Corbett, 1 June 2017): Although some nations have developed or acquired chemical or biological agents, few have ever used these weapons against their adversaries. One of the few countries ever thought to have used chemical or biological agents was Rhodesia. This small, landlocked breakaway British colony in Southern Africa used chemical and biological agents during its protracted struggle against an increasingly numerous African nationalist insurgency in the years following Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) from Britain in November 1965.

CB security and safety

  • Latin American and Caribbean First Responders Trained in Advanced Chemical Emergency Response Techniques (OPCW, 1 June 2017): Twenty-one first responders attended the Sixth Regional Advanced Assistance and Protection Course on Chemical Emergency Response for States Parties in Latin America and the Caribbean in Buenos Aires, Argentina, held from 15-19 May.
  • Arabic Speaking First Responders Upgrade Skills at Training in Morocco (OPCW, 1 June 2017): First responders from Arabic speaking countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa upgraded their capabilities in responding to emergencies involving toxic chemicals, after a training run by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in Casablanca, Morocco, from 14-18 May 2017. The third regional training course on Assistance and Protection against Chemical Weapons benefited 25 participants from various agencies involved in chemical emergency response and civil defence from Algeria, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.

CBW defence, protection and preparedness

  • Trump’s Proposed Budget Cuts Trouble Bioterrorism Experts (Emily Baumgaertner, 28 May 2017: President Trump has promoted his first budget proposal as placing one mission above all else — keeping America safe. But the president has drawn a narrow definition of national security, and one aspect of defense would actually receive less money: protecting the nation from deadly pathogens, man-made or natural. To help offset a 10 percent increase in military spending, much of the government would take serious hits, including agencies tasked with biosecurity. The Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response, which tracks outbreaks of disease, would be cut by $136 million, or 9.7 percent. The National Center for Emerging and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases — a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that fights threats like anthrax and Ebola — would be cut by $65 million, or 11 percent.
  • Delaney Statement on Potential Closing of National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (Global Biodefense, 30 May 2017): President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget, released last week, zeroes out funding for the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center (NBACC) in Frederick, Maryland and calls for its closure. The NBACC is part of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and is a one-of-a-kind facility dedicated to defending the United States against biological threats.
  • Sensors throughout Austin monitoring for bioterrorism agents (Sally Hernandez, 31 May 2017): Bioterrorism. It’s a threat that many people don’t think about, yet is ever present on the minds of health officials and the Department of Homeland Security. In 2003, after the anthrax scare at federal buildings, BioWatch was formed. BioWatch is an early warning system that is designed to detect the release of bioterrorism agents. Special sensors are strategically placed in selected cities, such as Austin, to monitor the air.
  • How Trump’s budget makes us all vulnerable to bioterrorism (Tara Kirk Sell, Crystal Watson and Matthew Watson, 31 May 2017): For nearly two decades, the federal government has committed to biopreparedness and made significant progress toward enabling our country to withstand and respond to biological attacks and pandemics. Funding for some of these programs has declined over time, but the new federal budget released last week by the Trump administration is uniquely drastic. It would undo the bipartisan progress to build our biodefenses by crippling, and in some cases eliminating, programs that are vital to our national health security.
    Threats to national and international biosecurity are far from speculative.
  • Edgewood Chemical Biological Center tests new Joint Service Aircrew Mask (HPN News Desk, 31 May 2017): A new mask that provides individual respiratory, eye, and skin protection from various chemical and biological warfare agents, including radiological particulates, for pilots and aircrew recently underwent testing at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC) facilities at Maryland’s Aberdeen Proving Ground.
  • Expediting detection of harmful pathogens in food supply (HSN, 1 June 2017): When food shopping, it is easy to overlook what it took to get your favorite meats and produce to the grocery store shelves. Anything perishable – beef, chicken, pork, vegetables, fruit, dairy and even water – must undergo a rigorous and time-consuming inspection process before shipping to its destination. FIU researchers are commercializing a device that reduces the screening process to just a few hours at the same cost as current devices.
  • Fort Detrick lab slated to close handles thousands of pieces of evidence for FBI (Danielle E. Gaines, 2 June 2017): A Fort Detrick laboratory slated for closure has processed about 14,000 pieces of evidence in criminal investigations involving biological threats such as ricin and anthrax, the FBI confirmed this week. And it’s the only laboratory in the country that can do this special brand of investigation and analysis.

Industry matters

  • JHU/APL Awarded Contract to Expand ESSENCE Biosurveillance System (Global Biodefense, 30 May 2017): The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has announced intentions to award a sole-source contract to the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) to provide enhancement and maintenance of the Electronic Surveillance System for the Early Notification of Community-based Epidemics (ESSENCE).
  • PositiveID Subsidiary ExcitePCR Names Chief Science Officer (Globe Newswire, 30 May 2017): PositiveID Corporation (OTC:PSIDD), a Life Sciences company focused on detection and diagnostics, announced today its wholly owned subsidiary, ExcitePCR Corporation, has named Dr. Kimothy Smith its Chief Science Officer. Dr. Smith, a recognized biodefense expert, will join Lyle Probst, the CEO of ExcitePCR, to manage the development of Firefly Dx to completion and commercialization, and execute the company’s mission under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) SenseNet program to provide faster, less expensive bio-threat detection systems while providing an added level of security.
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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.