Biological Weapons Pose Major Threat, Say U.K. Scientists
LONDON Biological weapons that can wipe out whole populations pose one of the biggest threats to the world today, yet remain almost completely uncontrolled, the British Medical Association said this week.
It urged the United States to stop blocking attempts to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) when it comes up for renewal in 2006.
"This technology could be used by sub-state terror groups and eventually by deranged individuals," said Malcolm Dando, author of the BMA's study, "Biological Weapons and Humanity II."
He warned that the development of biological weapons designed to target specific ethnic groups was coming closer to reality and said it was already theoretically possible to recreate devastating viruses like the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic that killed 40 million people.
The anthrax attacks in the United States in 2001 and the engineered nerve agent fentanyl used by the Russians to end the Moscow theater siege with disastrous results in 2002 showed that biological weapons already existed, Dando said.
Yet the BTWC, which dates back to 1975, contains no means of monitoring and no powers of enforcement.
"The best way of describing it is as a gentleman's agreement," said Dando, who is head of peace studies at Bradford University.
He said there were strong international mechanisms controlling nuclear and chemical weapons, but virtually nothing to control what he termed the "riotous development" of biotechnology.
Dando said the United States, which under President George W. Bush had turned its back on many international accords, was the key reason the BTWC treaty remained weak after 19 years.
The U.S.'s powerful biotechnology industry has put pressure on the administration not to sign up to international rules, fearing they could stifle research, he said.
But Dando noted that Bush's opponent in next week's presidential elections, Sen. John Kerry, had made positive comments about strengthening the treaty.
Russia, which was known to have developed a major biological weapons capability in the closing stages of the Cold War, had also kept a very low profile on the issue, he said.
"There are still several of its military laboratories that have not been opened up for inspection. You have to wonder why," he said.
Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said it was vital scientists got involved in self-regulation to try to ensure experiments and information were not misused.
"The real key to biosecurity, to not having to deal with deliberately spread epidemics, is to make sure that these materials are not produced," she said. "You can never provide 100 percent security but you can create safeguards."
Too lax controls and Armageddon could be round the corner, but too rigid regulation and vital advances on health sciences could be stifled.
What was needed was a code of ethics covering scientists and governments and sensible international laws fully enforced.
"If we don't do the prevention side, we have to be prepared for those weapons to be used," Nathanson said.