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Glasgow 2001 Sunday, 2 September, 2001, 23:39 GMT 00:39 UK
Biological warfare warning for UK
Spraying PA
The UK's biosecurity measures need improving
By BBC News Online's Helen Briggs

The current foot-and-mouth outbreak shows how vulnerable Britain is to any future threat from biological warfare, a former government chief scientific advisor has warned.


We only have to look at the current foot-and-mouth episode to see what can go wrong if we are not properly prepared and when a bug is not adequately contained

Sir William Stewart, British Association President
The UK was not properly prepared for the danger of microbiological disease and must learn from the episode, said Sir William Stewart.

Foot-and-mouth emphasises the difficulty that arises when a disease gets out of control, he added.

At least 30 known microbes in the world could potentially be misused as biological warfare agents, he said. This raises the question of whether Britain is adequately prepared should they ever be unleashed on the country.

Sir William made his comments in a presidential address on the opening day of the British Association (BA) Festival of Science in Glasgow.

'Timely reminder'

The professor, who recently chaired the government's independent expert group on mobile phones, called for greater government emphasis on long-term measures to reduce the risk of biological attack.

Stewart PA
Sir William Stewart: At least 30 known microbes could potentially be misused as biological warfare agents
He said that microbiology was becoming a neglected science in the UK, and the country could pay the price in the future.

"We only have to look at the current foot-and-mouth episode to see what can go wrong if we are not properly prepared and when a bug is not adequately contained," he told the BA.

"It is a timely reminder that we must not forget about microbiology," he added. "Implications of its effect and how it is used go far beyond the farm gate and the countryside."

Sir William said that if the UK had been adequately prepared for foot-and-mouth, the virus would have been totally eradicated by now.

He said more emphasis was needed on long-term thinking by the government rather than fire fighting.

Global threat

Sir William warned that microbiology as a science was suffering in the UK, with many pharmaceutical companies concentrating their resources abroad.

Meanwhile, there was a growing threat on a global scale from microbes, he said, including an increasing pool of man-made genetically modified viruses.

"No country in the world is adequately prepared [for biological warfare]," Sir William told BBC News Online.

But he said there were measures Britain could take to prepare for an unforeseen hazard.

"One's got to strengthen the containment facilities which would contain any disease, and you've got to have world class experts who can address the system at the drop of the hat if something turns up," he said.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Tom Heap
reports on the threat of biological warfare
British Association's Sir William Stewart
"Vaccination has a role to play and it should have been used much sooner"
See also:

02 May 01 | Science/Nature
21 Feb 01 | San Francisco
20 Feb 01 | San Francisco
Links to more Glasgow 2001 stories are at the foot of the page.


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