OP#21: Biotechnology E-commerce: A Disruptive Challenge to Biological Arms Control

Biotechnology E-commerceRaymond Zilinskas
Philippe Mauger
May 7, 2015

Occasional Paper #21

Read the full Occasional Paper #21:
Biotechnology E-commerce: A Disruptive Challenge to Biological Arms Control

Current approaches to prevent the proliferation of biological weapons rely heavily on the operation of export controls for equipment used in the production or dissemination of biological agents. Concerned that the emergence and growth of biotechnology e-commerce has significantly disrupted the effectiveness of such export controls, the British Commonwealth and Foreign Office funded a study in June 2014 for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) titled “The Internet as a Source for Dual-Use Technologies of Biological Weapons Concern: Policy Implications and Governance Options,” to research the biological arms-control problems presented by biotechnology dual-use products and technologies sold via the Internet (e-commerce), and to determine how these problems could be addressed.

Export Controls & Equipment Sold Online

Our primary focus was on equipment listed on the Australia Group’s (AG) Dual-use Biological Equipment and Related Technology and Software list, which we call AG-grade items. The AG is an informal forum of 41 countries and the European Union, seeks to harmonize national export controls on such equipment. The items on their list all have important peaceful applications, but are also suitable for the production, processing, and dissemination of biological agents. We investigated the extent to which AG-grade items from eight equipment categories are available from Internet vendors. These categories are: fermenters, centrifugal separators, cross (tangential) flow filtration equipment, freeze-drying equipment, spray-drying equipment, protective and containment equipment, aerosol inhalation chambers; and spraying or fogging systems and related components.

Our searches found AG-grade equipment from at least seven of these categories offered for sale online, albeit in varying quantities. We focused on vendors in non-AG participating countries that listed items for international export, and analyzed their company profiles and sales tactics. We concluded that the availability of these items, coupled with the potential vulnerability of these AG-grade equipment vendors to exploitation by would-be proliferators, poses a significant challenge to biological weapons interdiction efforts.

Addressing the Challenge

It is important for states, in particular AG participant states, to take steps to address this disruptive challenge to biological weapons interdiction. The steps to be taken include: outreach efforts to companies running online sale platform websites; ways of ensuring e-commerce industry input is heard; means to improve the monitoring of online biotechnology equipment offers and sales; and a new process for updating the AG biotechnology list. These suggestions have the potential to alleviate, albeit not solve, the problems raised in this paper.

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