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 now 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”.
On this page
- Implementing the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention
- Strengthening global biological security
- Biological threat reduction in action
- Related links
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:
- the control of biological materials
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:
- develop and implement effective export controls for biological materials (Article III)
- develop and adopt relevant national legislation (Article IV)
- mitigate biological threats and encourage the peaceful use of biological materials (Article X)
Canada’s Weapons Threat Program 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 (Article VII).
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:
- Canadian legislation implementing the Convention
- Canadian laboratories
- Research into biological weapons defense conducted by our government and military
- Our capacity to produce vaccines
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.
Strengthening global biological security
Biological threats know no boundaries. Canada’s Weapons Threat Reduction Program supports partner countries and organizations to better prevent, detect and respond to all manner of biological threats. 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:
- Secure and account for materials that represent biological proliferation risks
- Develop and maintain appropriate and effective measures to prevent, prepare for, detect and disrupt the deliberate misuse of biological agents
- Strengthen national and international capabilities to rapidly identify, confirm/assess and respond to biological attacks
- Reinforce and strengthen the BTWC and other biological disarmament and non-proliferation obligations, principles, practices and instruments
- Reduce biological proliferation risks through the advancement and promotion of safe and responsible conduct
Biological threat reduction in action
Canada is a global leader in the delivery of biological threat reduction programming. We are assisting more than twenty 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 have demonstrated their impact and value during the pandemic. They are supporting the global response to COVID-19. Support includes:
- biological containment laboratories in the Caribbean, Ghana, Jordan, Nigeria and South Africa
- an Emergency Operations Center Network for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)
- the ASEAN BioDiaspora Virtual Centre
Building on these longstanding partnerships, WTRP has provided other support to partners to combat the COVID pandemic. This includes:
- support to the Institut Pasteur du Laos for personal protective equipment and other critical supplies
- a contribution to the International Atomic Energy Agency to support COVID diagnostics in some 26 countries
- the in-kind contribution of 1,090,000 items of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to 6 ASEAN member states, the ASEAN Secretariat and the Africa Centers for Disease Control
- support to fully equip 20 mobile diagnostic laboratories for the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS) in South Africa
Canada’s WTRP is committed to health-security collaboration and to identifying new partnerships and innovations to strengthen global health security.
- Within the Vaccines Partnership (COVAX) of the Access to COVID-19 Tools (ACT)-Accelerator, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) is the designated lead for research, development, testing and licensing of COVID-19 vaccines. WTRP has been engaged with CEPI since 2017. They previously contributed $14M to support CEPI’s efforts to develop vaccines for high consequence pathogens of security concern. WTRP is managing Canada’s $60 million contribution to CEPI for COVID vaccines.
- To address serious proliferation threats resulting from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa (2014-2015), Canada has provided biological laboratories and biobanks to Nigeria (Lagos State) and Sierra Leone, to help strengthen capabilities across West Africa to prevent, detect and respond to outbreaks of infectious diseases – whether naturally-occurring, accidental or deliberate (such as bioterrorism).
- Canada is proud to be at the forefront of efforts to strengthen global mechanisms and capabilities for responding to and investigating the deliberate use of disease. We are supporting the World Health Organization to establish a new Health Security Interface Secretariat, which will better equip the organization to respond to deliberate biological events.
- Canada has established a strong and effective partnership with ASEAN to mitigate a diverse range of biological threats that pose serious risks to the security and safety of its member countries, the broader region, and to Canada and Canadians.
- While much work remains to be done, Canada is pleased to note that the health-security capacity that Canada has helped to build in partner countries and regions has meaningfully strengthened capabilities to fight the current Corona virus (COVID-19) outbreak. In addition, Canada is confident that ongoing support for the WHO’s Health Security Interface Secretariat will pay important dividends in addressing the COVID-19 outbreak, as will Canada’s contributions to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations.
- Canada National Statement to the United Nations Security Council Open VTC on Pandemics and Security (July 2, 2020)
- INTERPOL Bioterrorism Prevention Unit
- Public Health Agency of Canada: Biosafety and biosecurity
- Biological security programming
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