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Thursday, January 21, 1999 Published at 11:12 GMT


Genetic weapons alert

The BMA paints a grim picture of the menace of genetic weapons

Advances in genetic knowledge could be misused to develop powerful biological weapons that could be tailored to strike at specific ethnic groups, the British Medical Association has warned.

A BMA report Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity says that concerted international action is necessary to block the development of new, biological weapons.

It warns the window of opportunity to do so is very narrow as technology is developing rapidly and becoming ever more accessible.

"Recipes" for developing biological agents are freely available on the Internet, the report warns.

As genetic manipulation becomes a standard laboratory technique, there is a risk that this new information will also become widely available.

Procedures to monitor against the misuse of this new knowledge are urgently needed, the BMA says.

Abuse of knowledge

The report identifies two principal ways in which advancing genetic knowledge could be misused for weapons development:

  • Genetic information is already being used to "improve" elements of biological weapons, for example by increasing their antibiotic resistance. These developments raise the spectre of highly targeted biological weapons being used on the battlefield.
  • Weapons could theoretically be developed which affect particular versions of genes clustered in specific ethnic or family groups.

Although genetic weapons which target a particular ethnic group are not currently a practical possibility, the report concludes it would be complacent to assume that they could never be developed in the future.

Humans from apparently widely divergent social groups actually have more similarities than differences in their genetic make up. But differences do exist and as the Human Genome Project advances, these differences can increasingly be identified.

The BMA report warns that legitimate research into microbiological agents and genetically targeted therapeutic agents could be difficult to distinguish from research geared towards developing more effective weapons.

The BMA says that urgent action is needed to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention.

This has not been effective in prohibiting the development of biological weapons, the BMA says, because it does not have adequate verification provisions.

The BMA has called on doctors and medical organisations to campaign against the development of biological weapons.

Serious threat

[ image: Dr Vivienne Nathanson:
Dr Vivienne Nathanson: "Doctors have an important campaigning role"
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, BMA Head of Health Policy Research said: "The history of humanity is a history of war.

"Scientific advances quickly lead to developments in weapons technology.

"Biotechnology and genetic knowledge are equally open to this type of malign use.

"Doctors and other scientists have an important role in prevention. They have a duty to persuade politicians and international agencies such as the UN to take this threat seriously and to take action to prevent the production of such weapons."

Dr Nathanson warned that getting rid of weapons once they are produced is difficult.

"Governments may be reluctant to give up weapons that the rest of the world finds unacceptable. Terrorists certainly will be. We still have the chance to strengthen the ban on these weapons. We must do so now and we must make sure the ban is policed effectively."

[ image: The Tokyo subway gas attack injured hundreds]
The Tokyo subway gas attack injured hundreds
Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity traces the history of chemical and biological weapons, and highlights their potentially devastating potential for destruction.

On a clear, calm night, one to three million people could become infected by the release of 100 kg of anthrax spores over a major city, and the majority would die.

A Foreign Office spokesman said: "We would accept the threat posed by biological weapons is a very grave one.

"Not only is the UK one of the signatories to the international convention on biological weapons, it is arguing for that convention to be strengthened.

"It is the only international arms convention not to include verification regimes, and the UK believes that it should be given those teeth."

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