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Tuesday, October 5, 1999 Published at 01:02 GMT 02:02 UK


Doctors tackle weapons of the future

Genetic breakthroughs could help build weapons

The latest medical technology will probably be turned against humanity in the form of lethal biological and genetic weapons, warn doctors.

The profession is holding a conference to examine the threat to health - and work out ways of getting these new weapons outlawed.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of health policy at the British Medical Association says that advances in genetics mean that the world is more dangerous than even at the height of the Cold War.

She says that the world is potentially only a decade away from weapons that can discriminate between races.

Recipes for disaster online

And while nuclear technology required scarce and closely-guarded raw material, the ingredients for such weapons are easily obtainable.

And recipes for their construction can be found easily on the Internet.

Dr Nathanson said: "Science is trying to make existing biological weapons less damaging to the environment, which is one of the reasons they have not been widely used in the past."

The biological research centre at Porton Down is currently trying to develop a vaccine against plague - which although this will help guard against the disease in its natural form, is also aimed at guarding against the effects of weapons containing the germ.

There is also concern that the Human Genome project, which is mapping the entire genetic structure of a human being, will give weapons designers the ability to target particular groups, or develop more effective weapons.

Dr Nathanson said: "As the Human Genome project moves towards a finish, there will be more knowledge about all sorts of things, genetically engineered drugs - these weapons are only 10 years away."

The conference will also be told about new battlefield weapons, which use microwave energey and electromagnetic pulses to disorientate and disable enemy troops.

Campaigning force

The BMA is keen to be a campaigning force to draw attention to effects of the new weapons.

Dr Nathanson said: "We can make sure we are there and ready to play our part in the debates. Unless we do, nobody will give an informed view."

The conference will hear from David Atwood, from the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva about the success of the Ottawa agreement on the outlawing of landmines.

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