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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 19:00 GMT
Controls on science labs
Ministry of Defence pictures of chemical weapons found by previous weapons inspections
It is feared terrorists could get weapons know-how
MPs have warned that terrorists could infiltrate science labs in British universities and gather lethal pathogens for germ warfare

What are the present controls and how worried are the universities?

The science world in the UK was shocked and dismayed to discover that the woman behind Iraq's weapons programme studied for her doctorate at the University of East Anglia.

Rihab Taba, who is the head of the Iraqi biological weapons programme, was at the university in the 1980s.

Some researchers believe Britain is very attractive to would-be terrorists.

Sensitive work

One authority on germ warfare told BBC News Online: "Britain has got the reputation of being ahead on this research and people who want to learn things would come here.

"That is natural, but universities have to be aware that someone might come with the intention of using what they learn against people."

He said students who came as post-graduates could get access to laboratories where pathogens were kept and ingratiate themselves with people doing sensitive work.

But getting hold of the agents of germ warfare would not be enough to launch a terror attack, according to Dr Alexander Kelle, who is working with the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University.

"If they did get hold of a viral stem and were intent on killing people, they would have to grow and weaponise it. A viral stem could die on your hands.

"They would need their own laboratories and more than any modest skills."

Sarin attack

Dr Kelle gave the example of the terrorists who launched the Sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo underground in 1995.

He said the nerve-gas attack was their fall-back position and that they had been planning even more serious attacks but failed to develop their weapons in the laboratory.

"They had the resources, the trained personnel and the laboratories and it was a real failure for them. It's not as easy as most people think."

Controls on laboratories where pathogens are kept were tightened last year in emergency legislation brought in after the terrorist attacks on New York.

Such laboratories are registered with the Home Office and those in charge of them have to tell the police who has access to the dangerous materials kept there.

A government spokeswoman said officials had worked closely with the research community in drawing up the measures in the Anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act, which was brought in last December.

In practice, academics who are suspicious about someone who is applying to work in their department, voluntarily report the matter to the police or secret services so that the person can be checked out.

This is what happened in the case of the retired Oxford microbiologist Dr Joseph Selkon.

In the run-up to the Gulf War, when he was director of the Oxford Laboratories Microbiology Laboratory, he said he received an application from a very well-qualified Iraqi, together with an offer of 20,000 from the Iraqi government.

He raised the alarm, and says this triggered extra checks which led to the discovery that microbiology laboratories had been targeted by Baghdad.

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See also:

11 Dec 02 | Politics
22 Oct 02 | Politics
09 Dec 02 | Politics
15 Nov 02 | Europe
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