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San Francisco Tuesday, 20 February, 2001, 01:53 GMT
Biotechnology in the front line
Graphic BBC
By Corinne Podger in San Francisco

Biotechnology will provide the most effective defence against bioterrorism, military and public health experts have told a major scientific conference in the United States.

The completion of the human genome project, and developments in our understanding of diseases like anthrax and botulism, will help in developing tests and vaccines that will protect society against bioterrorist attacks - as well as natural epidemics.

The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) heard from Colonel Edward Eitzen, head of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. He said a release of anthrax bacteria near a city of half a million people would cause up to 90,000 deaths within a week.

Part of the problem would be identifying anthrax as the cause of death, however. Dr Craig Venter, CEO of Celera Genomics, which has just published a version of the human DNA sequence, said new advances in biotechnology could speed up the process of identifying the nature of any attack from several days to just a few hours.

"The way people have detected bacteria in the past is that they have grown them, to see what they look like, smell like, what properties they have," he said. "But with knowledge about the genetic code, we can multiply the amount of DNA in a specific species, so if it's smallpox, if it's meningitis, if it's anthrax, we can find it in a very precise fashion."

This could prevent massive casualties, Dr Venter said.

Internet sourcing

While the conference heard that the potential for bioterrorist attacks was considered unlikely, it could not be dismissed.

Public health expert Dr Margaret Hamburg said lethal agents such as botulism, anthrax and bubonic plague could be purchased illegally over the internet, and might be more appealing to a would-be terrorist than conventional weapons.

"I think there's reason to think that biological weapons are going to be increasingly attractive," she said. "I think that they're definitely cheaper, probably easier to get hold of, they're easier to conceal, there is information about them available on the internet and through other sources, and they are terrifying.

"All of these things together make them a pretty attractive weapon if your goal is to do harm, disrupt society as we know it, and make people afraid of you and the threat you represent."

The chance of biotechnology being abused to engineer new so-called "super-diseases" was dismissed by Dr Hamburg as being too time-consuming and expensive.

She said biotechnology was more likely to be beneficial in defence, for protecting against outbreaks of disease, either from terrorist attacks, but more commonly in naturally occurring, freak epidemics.

New vaccines

Colonel Edward Eitzen said such outbreaks were considered more likely because of increased international travel and global trade.

"I think that there's a lot of concern today about the issue of emerging diseases, new diseases that cross borders and come into our country.

"One of the agents that we worry about is a group of toxins called the botulinum toxins. They're the causative agents of the condition we know as botulism, which normally occurs in humans from contaminated foods.

"However, this is a toxin that really is one of the most lethal toxins known to man, that could be used as a biowarfare or a bioterrorism agent.

"We're currently working on a vaccine that uses biotechnology to take a fragment of the toxin - a non-toxic fragment - and splits it off from the rest of the molecule.

"It creates a good antibody response and it also in animals protects against the lethal effects of the toxin itself. This is very exciting work. We can take a non-toxic fragment of the molecule and produce a safer, but still very effective vaccine that has no toxicity in and of itself."

International law

The meeting also heard from Professor Matthew Meselson, a geneticist at Harvard University.

He said the increased risk of bioweapon attacks suggested the need for new measures under international law to bring individuals suspected of bioterrorism to trial.

"There's a body of international law that covers crimes which are a threat to all - airline hijacking, torture, etc.

"This kind of law permits a country in which an individual is found, who is accused of any of those specific crimes, to exert jurisdiction over that individual whether he is a citizen or not, and regardless of whether the alleged crime has actually been committed.

"We hope that such a treaty could be fashioned for the crime of developing or using biological weapons."

Colonel Edward Eitzen
"I think that there's a lot of concern today about the issue of emerging diseases"
Prof Matthew Meselson
International law needs to address these issues
See also:

22 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
26 Jan 99 | Anaheim 99
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