by David P. Fidler and Lawrence O. Gostin. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007. 320pp. Cloth. $29.95. ISBN: 9780804750295.

Reviewed by Victoria A. Redd, The Journal Offices, University of Florida Levin College of Law. Email: reddva [at]


Within the governments of our world today, there are many who debate the question: What can be done to protect society against threats that are unseen (diseases, pests, and super bugs) which can destroy our entire existence as we know it?

Biosecurity has been at the forefront of most concerned citizens’ minds since the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York City by global terrorists on September 11, 2001. Many security organizations have shifted their focus from the physical threat of wartime invasion to that of bioterrorism. Although, this concern was dealt with in the 1925 Geneva Protocol by banning the use of biological weapons in warfare, there is renewed concern to face the challenge of biosecurity, not only from weapons, but also from natural diseases. How can we as a society create needed oversight without jeopardizing the research needed to face emerging health issues?

Historically, security has been thought of as the protection against any physical military attack. These concerns are still apparent today, however there are added security threats that need to be the center of focus – how can a biological attack on the environment and society be stopped; how can a biological attack be detected; and how can a biological attack be prevented from spreading through society’s air, water, and food.

In addition, precious resources used to focus on bioterrorism could be taking away funds and personnel needed to handle daily public health issues. Security and public health policies need to be combined globally to achieve an effective means of biosecurity against terrorism and society’s ills. However, integrating security and public health organizations has received much scrutiny because the two fields fall within different levels of politics. Security has always been considered a high political agenda; whereas public health has been thought of as a low political agenda or even non-political. Given that “[t]raditionalists in both security and public health resist weaving these new areas together” (p.2) (especially since it requires a change in how policymakers think), the goal of biosecurity (a new policy agenda) is a critical challenge. To begin with, the supervision required for such a task is enormous, requiring careful management of scientific discovery and fear of its misuse, and it involves difficult decisions with limited knowledge. The conventional methods of a nation protecting its self-interests are not the solution. So, what should the nations [*472] of the world do to maintain biosecurity? Is bioterrorism really a threat to the nations of the world today? And, how can nations globalize governmental supervision and maintain a balance of powers?

Individuals who are concerned with these challenging questions would be well informed if they read BIOSECURITY IN THE GLOBAL AGE: BIOLOGICAL WEAPONS, PUBLIC HEALTH, AND THE RULE OF LAW, by David P. Fidler and Lawrence O. Gostin. With a clear-cut title that epitomizes the subject matter, the book distinctly lays out the crisis facing the world’s biosecurity. This forward-looking book enables the reader to understand the complexities involved in such a task. Fidler and Gostin, who are both leading experts in public health law, give a worldview analysis of the changing situation involving security and public health and insist the integration of the two is critical. Using persuasive arguments that explain emerging trends in great detail (sometimes with overwhelming logic), this book presents the main challenges that biosecurity is facing in the coming century. In keeping with their central objective, Fidler and Gostin present a framework that merges security and public health into “a global security concert” (p.237) to move from erratic oversight to a more purposeful strategy.

The book begins by breaking down the goal of biosecurity into four “central policy challenges” (p.8). The first involves “the collision of two policy spheres” into a reorganization, combining security and public health from a national to global level (this objective has received much “skepticism and concern about such [an] integration”) (p.9). The second challenge involves governing scientific research “without hobbling science’s potential to improve human health,” a balance that will indeed be difficult to achieve and one which “require[s] careful calibration” in order to maintain scientific discovery and the access and use of that knowledge to the world (p.13). The third challenge involves integration of security and public health and governing of science as part of the rule of law which will determine what is best for the majority of populations around the world. The final challenge involves creating policy for biosecurity on a global scale – “global governance” defined as governance by “not only states but also non-state actors” (p.15).

Using non-state actors in global governance (a highly controversial issue debated in the study of international relations) would include independent scientists, who most likely do not interact with government; other such non-state actors would be agencies, such as nongovernmental organizations, foundations, global funds, human rights groups, and international corporations. Biological weapons and infectious disease are transnational issues, but state-focused policies are used to resolve these problems – however, the system of international politics constrains response capabilities, creating a need for non-state actors and global governance. Biosecurity is also a transnational issue; it benefits all populations of the world and therefore must be maintained through global governance too.

Fidler and Gostin begin with an introduction to biosecurity, starting with its definition and then showing how history has played a role in causing the emerging “policy revolution, the [*473] implications of which are still unfolding and are not yet fully understood”(p.2). Following the introduction, Fidler and Gostin have broken their topic into three sections: Biosecurity and Biological Weapons; Biosecurity and Public Health (the shortest section but the most interesting); and Biosecurity, the Rule of Law, and Globalized Governance. At the end of the book are annexes, which are very informative, ranging from a list of agents and toxins, the Geneva Protocol of 1925, the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, and a listing of the articles and their topics from the International Health Regulations of 2005. It is closed out with a List of References and an expansive index. This well-organized book gives even a layperson ample opportunity to understand the concepts and challenges involved in biosecurity.

Resolving the challenge of global biosecurity governance requires collective action, something different from international relations which handle bioterrorism or infectious disease clumsily. International politics tend to get messy when dealing with these kinds of problems because of the structural framework. The authors quote Timothy Dunne and Brian C. Schmidt (2001, at 143) to explain the difficulty of this challenge and how “international politics takes place in an arena that has no overarching central authority above the individual collection of sovereign states” (p.222). Fidler and Gostin point out that the Geneva Protocol and the Biological Weapons Convention are useless to handle modern threats. Normally, these programs address arms control and the use or development of biological weapons, and at this day and time, it is doubtful that these programs will control the world’s biosecurity environment. The authors call this a “modern problem” (p.44) (a problem that is directly associated with modern science). In the past, disease has been a result of war – poor nutrition and unsanitary conditions led to disease epidemics – but now there is concern that disease will be used deliberately as a military weapon that can wipe out whole populations.

The Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), which is the first treaty to outlaw a certain type of weapon and its stockpile, has several problems – for example, how it defines a biological weapon. The BWC could also limit the use of scientific research for the good of humanity. Article X of the BWC is another problem, it says that states can use research “for the prevention of disease, or for other peaceful purposes” (p.272), but questions have been raised about what is a peaceful purpose. (Article X has also brought up problems with technology transfer between developed and developing countries; this has happened because of the creation of the New International Economic Order in the 1970s.) In addition there are problems with how to ensure compliance with the BWC’s prohibitions. Furthermore, there are problems with how to define the “necessary measures” (p.271) of Article IV to accomplish the goals of the BWC. (The BWC did not pose a threat to states who wanted to have biological weapons, such as the Soviets and Iraqis, which yielded yet another protocol, the Chemical Weapons Convention, to be used as a compliance mechanism.) Fidler and Gostin summarize all these problems: “some experts . . . argue that the effort to [*474] achieve verification of BWC compliance had become a fool’s errand” (p.50).

It may seem so, because terrorists do not abide by treaties. When considering bioterrorists like the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult who used sarin gas in 1995 (and tried to use botulin toxin and anthrax spores unsuccessfully), the Al Qaeda Sunni Islamic international terrorist organization who experimented with ricin, and the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh Neo-sannyasins who orchestrated a salmonella attack on U.S. citizens in The Dalles, Oregon, we may be in for a rude awakening if we think that any protocol would be helpful. However everyone seems to admit that the traditional form of arms control is definitely not the answer to terrorism. Barry Kellman (2004), who has published extensively in the field of terrorism and bio-crime, argues that “there is no international authority with expertise to pursue relevant strategies.” The BWC was never realistically intended to regulate biological sciences and laboratories; it criminalized the use or intent to use biological weapons – and many countries do not even have legislation in place to support its prohibitions. This superficial complacency must be rejected, and a new plan of action is in order. So what plan can the world have to face the terrorists and bioterrorists of this age?

As the old cliché goes, “you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.” If we cannot use the BWC, what can we use? Is there a way to fight these global threats differently from the traditional methods that would be better? Fidler and Gostin believe there is, and they have suggested a plan of action in their book. It is a framework of action called a global biosecurity concert – because the pathogenic threat is global, “it demands policy and governance actions that are also global in scope and substance” (p.219) – that will enable the governments of our world to use “multi-level, multi-variable, and multi-actor strategies” (p.236).

Flexibility, Fidler and Gostin declare, is the answer to resolving the world’s problems, creating something new through “biosecurity politics” (p.238), in a global biosecurity concert (similar to the nineteenth century’s Concert of Europe) with a focused purpose. The concert would integrate the security and public health fields (the first task that the authors stress is required, but it will use the U.N. Security Council as the central authority to empower state and non-state actors, allowing them to focus not only on biological weapons but also on infectious diseases) and enable the collective powers that are needed for biosecurity governance, in order to accomplish the four central policy challenges.

The global biosecurity concert would be headed by the U.N. Security Council, which would be responsible for maintaining international peace and security, and would form a Committee on Biological Security. The Committee’s mandate would be “to oversee global efforts on biosecurity and to advise the Security Council on biosecurity problems emerging in the international system” (p.253). The Committee would be similar to the 1540 Committee, only with a broader jurisdiction. It would coordinate its actions using the BWC and the International Health Regulations of 2005, but the Security Council would monitor its actions, and there would also [*475] be a BWC secretariat made up of state parties. Regional Biosecurity Initiatives would be in charge of regional efforts on biosecurity governance tasks and report to the Committee. National Biosecurity Interagency Focal Point Groups would oversee activities on the national level and report to the Regional Biosecurity Initiatives. This hierarchal structure would represent the global biosecurity concert which would have three directives: to oversee research in the biological sciences, to embed biosecurity governance in the rule of law, and to globalize governance of biosecurity. This structure would enable policymakers to be more effective from the national to the global levels and improve health infrastructures, response times, and intervention capabilities. This strategy-driven structure would also recognize change and uncertainty in dealing with future biosecurity.

There are skeptics who feel that biosecurity is not a problem and can be dealt with by individual nations. Other skeptics believe that redefining security to include infectious disease and non-state actors is unnecessary – this belief was extremely strong in the United States until the 9/11 terrorist attacks – debating that the traditional framework of state-centric defense is best. Fidler and Gostin admit that biosecurity may not be the most important issue on the minds of policymakers today, because some are more concerned with nuclear proliferation, weak and failing nations, oil resources, and even global warming, immigration, and border control. Making public health a security issue has also brought much scrutiny. Some feel that this will only jeopardize the goals of public health, concentrating resources for events that may never occur (a terrorist attack using communicable diseases such as smallpox as a weapon), in place of research, prevention, and education against non-communicable diseases (such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and obesity), and add to the death toll of millions (heart disease and cancer were reported as number one killers by BBC (2000) and CNN (2006)). Fidler and Gostin state that this view is unfounded: Combining the security and public health sectors is necessary (The U.N. Secretary-General argued that this would give public health “double merit” (2005, 93)), and it would strengthen “public health through biosecurity policy [and] achieve the dual purpose of defending against biological weapons and protecting societies from resurgent infectious diseases” (p.151), simply because outbreaks will occur, even if a terrorist attack will not. As a result, surveillance for infectious disease is already needed, and if public health is prepared through surveillance, society will be better served in the long run. In regard to global surveillance, the World Health Organization has been involved in this since the 1990s, and it was to their credit that the International Health Regulations of 2005 were adopted.

Fidler and Gostin admit that their global biosecurity concert may “seem unrealistic, simplistic, or naïve” (p.259). Even forty years ago, the concerns in this book would have seemed like a science fiction movie – where the villain is trying to destroy the world and some action hero comes to save the day – but today, the threat of biological weapons and infectious disease seem real enough, and I am convinced as the authors state in their conclusion that biosecurity must be taken seriously and a new framework [*476] of global governance could be the answer.

A transformation of the world’s current strategies, from state-centric to global-oriented, would require re-dedication to the rule of law and a willingness to change the way of dealing with worldwide threats. But, whether the change takes place, the current threats to society will likely evolve further into turmoil. The authors’ foresight of creating a management team, a global biosecurity concert, a mechanism to face the evolved threats of today, is possibly the solution. Those who reflect on the world’s security and are willing to be open to new ideas and ways of governing should study this book – unfortunately, the BWC’s Seventh Review Conference is not until 2011, revealing the complacency in the current system.

BBC News. 2000. “Cancer: Number One Killer.” available at 2006. “Heart Disease Still the Most Likely Reason You’ll Die.” available at

Dunne, Timothy and Schmidt, Brian C. 2001. “Realism.” In THE GLOBALIZATION OF WORLD POLITICS: AN INTRODUCTION TO INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS. John Baylis and Steve Smith (eds). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 141-161.

Kellman, Barry. 2004. “Policy Brief: Bio-Terrorism Policy Statement.” available at

United Nations Secretary-General. 2005. “In Larger Freedom: Towards Development, Security, and Human Rights for All.” U.N. Doc. A/59/2005.

© Copyright 2008 by the author, Victoria A. Redd.