Unanticipated Benefits of Arms Control

Source: CDC

By ACA Intern Matt Sugrue

A recently published “proof of concept” by a joint USAMRIID (U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease) and AVI BioPharma team shows the possibility for developing a vaccine against the Marburg and Ebola filoviruses. USAMRIID is the lead research organization at Fort Detrick Maryland, the former home of the U.S. biological weapons program.

On November 25, 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that,

biological warfare…has massive, unpredictable, and potentially uncontrollable consequences. It may produce global epidemics and profoundly affect the health of future generations. Therefore, I have decided that the United States of America will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate.

Our bacteriological programs in the future will be confined to research in biological defense, on techniques of immunization, and on measures of controlling and preventing the spread of disease.

The United States stockpiles of biological weapons were subsequently destroyed during the early 1970s. The CIA preserved a small reserve in secret, until it too was discovered and destroyed. The U.S. renounced its biological weapons program. The motivation for unilaterally banning offensive work on biological weapons probably stemmed from several factors; including a fear that biological weapons “could prove attractive to poorer countries that could not afford to…[develop] nuclear weapons.” Policymakers hoped that if the United States renounced biological weapons, it would provide the impetus for a universal renunciation.

Following Nixon’s announcement, and U.S. ratification of the Geneva Convention, the U.S. biological weapons program transitioned from researching offensive biological weapons to improving U.S. defenses against a potential biological attack, which included developing vaccines for infectious diseases.

By re-directing biological weapons facilities, such as Fort Detrick, towards research into developing defenses against biological weapons, the United States helped to make headway against the threat of a global outbreak of two deadly diseases. This has defense and humanitarian implications. The U.S. government is worried that terrorists could use either disease in a biological attack. In fact, the Soviet Union conducted research into both Marburg and Ebola as potential biological weapons.

Marburg and Ebola hemorrhagic fevers are two rare but virulent diseases. The mortality rate for Ebola is between 25%-90% and between 25%-80% for Marburg.

Arms control can have benefits beyond the original goals of halting proliferation or increasing security. The resources and expertise that were previously concerned with offensive capabilities can be redirected to make discoveries that benefit both U.S. security and, in this case, global health.

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