In the wartime calendar, April has been remembered as a grim month since 1915. On April 22 of that year, German forces in World War I used deadly chlorine gas against divisions for the first time. French to Ypres.
April 22 this year also marked the first anniversary of the death of British chemist Julian Perry Robinson, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex in England. Robinson, who died at 78 from Covid-19, was a world authority on chemical and biological weapons and had dedicated his life to pursuing international treaties to ban their use.
The fortuitous coincidence of these two anniversaries reminds us of the urgent need to preserve and develop Robinson’s work in preparation for the next pandemic. Lessons learned from the use and control of toxic weapons also apply to public health issues in preventing and controlling the spread of natural germs.
For nearly half a century, Robinson and his American colleague, Harvard biologist Matthew Meselson, led independent scientists to seek controls on chemical and biological weapons. They tirelessly lobbied the US Congress and the British Parliament. They advised political leaders and policy makers, and they openly encouraged the media to expose government misinformation.
Jhe two scientists met in the late 1960s and quickly became a political force in arms control. Meselson, already a renowned geneticist, informed 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 of a fundamental history of chemical and biological weapons, nurtured valuable sources both in government and among anti-war and pro-science activists in Europe. and in America, guaranteeing everyone’s trust. In the 1970s, an American arms control official broke protocol during a visit to London and research Robinson on his British counterparts. Eyebrows have been raised at the UK Foreign Office.
The Biological Weapons Convention prohibiting 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 science-based scholarly research independent of the groupthink of government and public organizations. Under the banner of the Harvard-Sussex Arms Control Program, they created a database about the history and use of poisoned weapons. It is the largest independent archive of its type in the world.
They published a related article quarterlythe CBW Congress Bulletinthat with Robinson’s forensic analyzes of weapons and allegations of their use set their research apart from other scientists.
They explored unanswered questions about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and Russia’s use of so-called Novichok nerve gas as an assassination weapon. As Meselson, now 90, told me, “If policy makers aren’t fully informed about where things are coming from, they could take a wrong turn. This type of information is like protective armor to prevent wars from being started by false information.
Jhe international response to the Covid pandemic has underscored the need for such expert and independent scientific voices. As we have seen, the rapid spread of disease quickly generates disinformation and misinformation.
This threatens to undermine the efforts of 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 hampered by political concerns. An example is the delay in recognizing how Covid can spread through aerosols— small particles of exhaled air from infected people. These organizations initially reported that the primary method of transmission was large droplets from coughs or sneezes that remain airborne for up to six feet. But aerosols stay airborne longer and can infect people over greater distances, up to 60 feet indoors.
A change of mind from the WHO and CDC came only after months of internal debate and a public outcry on the effect of aerosols by more than 200 scientists, published in the journal Clinical infectious diseases.
It is no coincidence that Meselson was one of the first scientists to draw attention to aerosols. He had studied their effects years ago when they were the chosen delivery method for biological weapons developed in Japan, Britain, the United States, Canada and the Soviet Union.
Meselson had used his knowledge of aerosol dispersion to conclude that the 1979 anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk was the result of a leak from an illegal bioweapons facility, not the consumption of contaminated meat as the Soviets claim.
EEfforts 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 these advances in the detection of new pathogens are not used for military or public health purposes. The Harvard Sussex program was originally designed to advise policy makers on how to achieve this goal.
The so-called dual use of scientific research has always been a concern for the public health community, and any new pandemic treaty should review safety standards in civilian and military laboratories. In both laboratories, “biosecurity” (preventing accidental or negligent releases) and “biosecurity” (preventing unauthorized access) are the primary concerns. In military laboratories, covert defensive research is not prohibited under the Biological Weapons Convention, and there can be a fine line between defensive and offensive research. The treaty’s periodic reviews are supposed to rely on states submitting their own reports on the issue, but only half of them have cooperated.
Meselson and Robinson recognized the connection to public health long ago. In 1970 and 2004, they made important contributions guidelines published by WHO on how to deal with the catastrophic consequences of a chemical or biological attack, whether natural, deliberate or accidental.
Last month, European leaders floated the idea of a new pandemic treaty, an initiative supported by WHO and countries in Africa, Asia and South America. Such a treaty would require the support of the United States and China and would likely take years to complete. A treaty would also need input from independent databases and researchers, who have historically played a key role in shaping new international agreements.
The Harvard Sussex program is such a unit. As a first step towards preserving the databank, Robinson’s colleagues presented proposals to the University of Sussex to build on this extraordinary history of the use of poisons in wartime. Now they want to expand 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 in jeopardy.