In September, just a few weeks
before Halloween, Paul W. S. Anderson released the fifth installment of the Resident Evil story. The film finds the
heroine, Alice, needing to escape from the Umbrella Corporation, an evil
pharmaceutical company plotting world domination. Eventually, the story ends
with Alice and her team fighting to save the human race from extinction in a wasteland
filled with superhuman zombies and undead dogs.
The idea of a globe haunted by undead creatures grossed the movie more than $21 million in its opening weekend. Something about the idea of zombies terrifies us and also makes us want to spend $15 for a movie ticket. But, what if the threat of human extinction from a manufactured disease was real?
While zombies remain part of myth -- we hope -- the threat of human extinction from disease is very real.
Since 1925, the international community has deemed biological weapons too horrible to use and outlawed them, even in warfare. In 1970, President Nixon officially ended the U.S.'s offensive biological weapons program and in 1972, many countries signed the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) agreeing not to use, retain or produce the weapons that could harm great numbers of people. Since then, 178 countries have signed or joined the regime. Nineteen remain outside the framework.
Despite the nightmare scenario if these weapons are used and nearly four decades of global sentiment against bio-weapons, BWC signatories have been known to cheat, most notably, the Soviet Union. After signing the BWC, the Soviet Union continued to develop biological weapons under the façade of a domestic pharmaceutical program and eventually weaponized plague; smallpox; Marburg, a deadly hemorrhagic fever; Q fever and others, according to Dr. Kenneth Alibek, chief scientist and first deputy director of Biopreparat, a branch of the Soviet's biological weapons program.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Soviet program appears to have ceased. However, nations are still suspected of harboring a desire to produce these weapons. Perhaps the most haunting point is that despite nearly a century of universal abhorrence, there is no way to catch cheaters pursuing weapons with the capacity to kill thousands or more.
Verification is needed because an offensive program can look nearly identical to biodefense, biotechnology or other research programs. The same equipment, samples and protocols used to create weapons are also used to conduct life-saving biomedical research.
There are hundreds of college and pharmaceutical labs. A lab studying ways to prevent parasite transmission in the developing world could easily mask a program to turn that parasite into a weapon.
The creation of a verification program would need transparency, as well as a strong global commitment to intellectual property rights. Establishing a working verification program could be model on existing nuclear weapons verification program with scheduled and surprise inspections.
Once established, standards of action within research would need to be harmonized internationally yet offer exceptions for those projects that promise amazing breakthroughs. These excepted programs working to develop prevention and cures for deadly disease like Ebola, cholera or malaria would be subjected to greater scrutiny since their offer a potential high-return in terms of scientific advance but high-risk in terms of dual-use and offensive capacity.
Sadly, the danger of biological weapons does not end with potentially rational actors. The 2001 anthrax letters and 1984 The Dalles, Oregon salad bar poisonings have displayed a need for an international verification regime that limits the access to dangerous disease-causing microbes by organizations and individuals seeking only terror.
The Resident Evil films and video games, along with the T virus-infected world they created have been a driving force in American science fiction sub-culture since 1996. It's time the true Halloween-horror of biological weapons drive the verification protocol that's been lacking since 1970.
Jules Zacher obtained is JD from Temple University; he is a Board Member for the Council for Livable World, an organization working limit weapons of mass destruction. James Lewis manages the biological and chemical weapons portfolio for the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.