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Biological weapons

Biological weapons use microbiological agents (such as bacteria, viruses or fungi) or toxins to intentionally cause death or harm to humans, animals, or plants. Canada is committed to countering the threat posed by the proliferation and use of biological weapons.

The 1925 Geneva Protocol banned the use of biological weapons in war. Subsequently, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) (PDF version) prohibited the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition and retention of biological weapons. The BTWC entered into force in 1975, and was the first multilateral disarmament treaty banning an entire category of weapons of mass destruction.

Canada is one of over 180 States to have ratified the Convention. Canada works closely with other States Parties as well as the Convention’s Implementation Support Unit to ensure that neither rogue states nor non-state actors, such as terrorist organizations, acquire the means to use biological weapons.

The nature and severity of biological threats has grown in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the potentially catastrophic impacts of a deliberate biological event. Unknown viruses affected almost every country, sector and population. Concerns are growing that the pandemic’s unprecedented scale and reach could inspire terrorists and states of proliferation concern to turn to biological weapons. UN Secretary General Guterres has underscored this threat, warning that:

“terrorist groups may see a window of opportunity to strike while the attention of most governments is turned towards the pandemic … (and) the weaknesses and lack of preparedness exposed by this pandemic provide a window onto how a bioterrorist attack might unfold – and may increase its risks. Non-state groups could gain access to virulent strains that could pose similar devastation to societies around the globe”.

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Implementing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

Each State Party is required to place the provisions of the Convention into its domestic legislation. Canada implements the BTWC through a series of laws regarding:

These include the Human Pathogens and Toxins Act, administered by the Public Health Agency of Canada Centre for Biosecurity, and the Criminal Code.

Canada is deeply committed to strengthening the BTWC and to supporting partner countries to better implement the Convention. The Weapons Threat Reduction Program (WTRP) – Canada’s flagship contribution to the G7-led Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction – assists States Parties to:

Canada’s WTRP also supports the BTWC Implementation Support Unit and the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs to strengthen global mechanisms and capacities to respond to the deliberate use of biological agents.

Canada’s commitment to transparency

The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) currently has no mechanism for verifying States Parties’ compliance.

At the second BTWC Review Conference (1986), States Parties agreed to submit annual Confidence Building Measures (CBMs). These measures are meant to prevent or reduce the occurrence of ambiguities, doubts and suspicions, and to improve international cooperation. Canada completes its annual Confidence Building Measures in order to promote transparency and foster confidence that we are meeting our obligations under the Convention.

In these CBMs, Canada shares data on:

Confidence Building Measures also include a declaration on any offensive biological weapons research Canada conducted prior to the Convention’s existence.

Sharing this information ensures transparency and helps raise confidence among other States Parties that we are in full compliance with the Convention.

Since 2011, the Convention’s Implementation Support Unit has published Canada's Confidence Building Measures on its public website.

At the 9th BTWC Review Conference (December 2022), States Parties agreed on the establishment of a “Working Group on the strengthening of the Convention”, which was based on a proposal submitted by Canada and the Netherlands. The Working Group is mandated “to identify, examine and develop specific and effective measures, including possible legally-binding measures, and to make recommendations to strengthen and institutionalise the Convention in all its aspects”. Issues to be covered are: international cooperation and assistance under Article X; scientific and technological developments relevant to the BTWC; confidence-building and transparency; compliance and verification; national implementation of the Convention; assistance, response and preparedness under Article VII; and organizational, institutional and financial arrangements.

Strengthening global biological security

Biological threats know no boundaries. Canada’s WTRP supports partner countries and organizations to better prevent, detect and respond to all manner of biological threats, whether natural, accidental or deliberate. Our work is guided by the Biosecurity Deliverables of the G7-led Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which aim to:

Biological threat reduction in action

Canada is a global leader in the delivery of biological threat reduction programming. We are assisting dozens of countries to strengthen biosafety and biosecurity for pathogens of security concern (e.g. anthrax and Ebola), enhance surveillance and diagnostic capabilities, and improve capacities to prevent, detect and respond to biological threats. Global Affairs Canada collaborates closely with a number of other Canadian government departments, regional and international organizations, non-governmental organizations and other member countries of the Global Partnership, the BTWC and the Global Health Security Agenda.

Many WTRP-funded initiatives demonstrated their impact and value during the pandemic and supported the global response to COVID-19. Support includes:

Building on these longstanding partnerships, WTRP provided additional support to partners to combat the COVID‑19 pandemic. This includes:

Canada’s WTRP is committed to health-security collaboration and to identifying new partnerships and innovations to strengthen global health security. In 2023, the WTRP is spearheading efforts to implement the Signature Initiative to Mitigate Biological Threats in Africa, to launch a Grand Challenge for Sustainable Laboratories and to support Ukraine to mitigate threats posed by Russia’s invasion.

Key initiatives

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