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Monday, 22 October, 2001, 07:44 GMT 08:44 UK
Tackling biowarfare: Can science help?
Decontaminaton after anthrax alert, Malaysia
The world is on alert for anthrax
Scientists are calling for research programmes to be set up to address the threat of biological weapons.

They say funds should be put into developing better ways to detect biowarfare agents and coming up with new vaccines to combat them.

According to a leading US geneticist, within the next year or two, the complete DNA sequence of more than 70 disease-causing agents that attack plants, animals and humans will be known.

The data will aid the search for new vaccines and novel treatments for infectious diseases, says Claire Fraser of The Institute for Genomic Research in Rockville, Maryland, US. But there is also a danger that it might facilitate the development of bioengineered weapons by those with more sinister intentions, she adds.

'Morally unacceptable'

In a commentary in the scientific journal Nature Genetics, Dr Fraser, and co-author Malcolm Dando, of the Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, UK, warn of the threat of a "fourth generation" of biological weapons, based on knowledge gained from the genomics revolution.

"We need to develop and fund specific research programmes aimed at addressing the threat of biological weapons, rather than hoping that relevant progress will be made as a consequence of research activities in more benign areas," they write.

"The difficulties of detection, protection and treatment should not be underestimated, but that does not mean this aspect of the overall policy response cannot be improved.

"In short, the biomedical community must play its proper part in the generation of a true web of deterrence that will render biological warfare or terrorism an obviously futile as well as morally unacceptable act.

"To do anything less is to accept that the events of 11 September could be repeated on an even larger scale through the misuse of the science and technology we generate for peaceful purposes."


In recent years, scientists have read the genetic sequence of a number of deadly pathogens, including, most recently, the plague.

There is concern that the genomes of some of these organisms could be engineered to make them even more dangerous.

But the authors point out that the same advances that could be used to produce bioweapons can also be used to set up biomeasures against them.

It might be possible, for example, to develop a rapid detection system for biological warfare agents that would both detect and analyse genetic material.

See also:

03 Oct 01 | Health
De-coding the Black Death
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