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Last Updated: Monday, 19 January, 2004, 02:00 GMT
Better bio-weapons controls urged
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Troops in hazard masks   PA
On guard: Bio-weapons could be a threat
The global treaty which bans biological weapons is in critical need of reform, according to the UK's Royal Society.

The society, the UK's national academy of science, says the 1975 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention is badly weakened by lack of scientific back-up.

It says governments should establish a body like the International Atomic Energy Agency to support the treaty.

The society is also worried that there is no way under the treaty to check up that signatories really do observe it.

In a response to a Parliamentary committee, the society says the IAEA's scientific programme underpins decisions taken within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and ensures the momentum to achieve its objectives is maintained.

Similarly, it says, "the chemical weapons convention is strengthened by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons".

Harder to check

"Science commissioned by this body has enabled the work of hundreds of inspectors to accurately audit materials."

Professor Julia Higgins, the society's foreign secretary, says: "The absence of a formal scientific advisory panel is a major constraint to developing a more effective Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention."

She said a significant problem in devising verification procedures for biological and chemical weapons was that laboratories and installations linked to them were more diffuse and difficult to monitor than those for nuclear weapons.

Suspect substances on Iraqi bonfire   AP
Up in flames: Suspicious substances burn in Iraq
And some research unconnected with biological and chemical weapons could also be used for military or terrorist purposes.

The society says governments need to be aware of new research and to monitor scientific advances, to guard against the development of "dual use" biological agents.

Professor Higgins, of Imperial College London, told BBC News Online: "I think the IAEA shows this sort of approach does work, but biological systems are really quite tricky and it's still not clear just how it would work.

"I wouldn't expect to go round Imperial and find lots of labs where people were doing research that could lead to nuclear weapons.

"But with biological ones it would be easier - and they might not even know their research could lead to that.

Global backsliders

"You could be working on very sensible things with very good applications, but misuse could conceivably end in a weapon.

"The UK Government is not doing at all badly on making sure science is taken seriously in every department, but there's an awful lot of variability internationally.

"With terrorists, they probably don't need to use cutting-edge research, only what's available. So if you have chief scientists in every ministry able to know what's happening in the labs, that's the best safeguard.

"The other thing you need is a slightly heightened awareness in the research community. So if someone is going off the rails, peer observation will spot it.

"And if a would-be terrorist comes calling and asks for a suspiciously large number of samples, then bells will start ringing."

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11 Dec 02  |  Education
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22 Oct 02  |  UK Politics

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