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Saturday, 16 November, 2002, 22:02 GMT
Iraqis 'infiltrated UK germ labs'
Anthrax
The scientists could have been studying germ warfare
Some of Britain's top laboratories were infiltrated by Iraqi scientists researching germ warfare in the run-up to the Gulf War, a scientist has claimed.

Iraqi scientists - financed by generous grants from the Iraqi government - reportedly applied for and gained research posts in academic and medical institutions.

Dr Joseph Selkon, a leading Oxford microbiologist, told BBC Radio 4's File on 4 that the infiltration was discovered after he became suspicious about one Iraqi research applicant.


We have little or no idea where the vast majority of these overseas students come from, what they've been doing hitherto, or what their affiliations are

Andrew Mackinlay
Labour MP
His suspicions sparked extra security checks, which revealed that leading microbiology laboratories had been targeted by Baghdad.

About 10 top Iraqi microbiologists had been granted places in sensitive research establishments around Britain.

Dr Selkon, retired director of the Oxford Laboratories Microbiology Laboratory, received the job application from the medically-trained Iraqi scientist in 1990.

"He had a superb CV, he was going to work for us for free, and we would receive 20,000... from the Iraqi government," Dr Selkon said.

Dr Selkon's team had been working on a project to prevent bacteria becoming more resistant to antibiotics. But antibiotic resistance is not a significant problem in Iraq.

Security checks

Dr Selkon's suspicions grew when he questioned colleagues in surgery and other medical departments.

He found it was only microbiology - the discipline most applicable to germ warfare - which had attracted Iraqi interest.

Dr Selkon reported his worries to the security services.

"I asked them to check whether this was just a one-off application to Oxford or whether this was part of a more general plan; they rather thought I was thinking science fiction.


He was going to work for us for free, and we would receive 20,000 from the Iraqi government

Dr Joseph Selkon
"But nevertheless they went away and came back later to say they had found nine or 10 scientists of this nature - all from Iraq - who had already been accepted by universities across the country to work in the microbiology field."

Dr Selkon concluded the Iraqis were working on plans to make bacteriological weapons resistant to standard methods of treatment by antibiotics.

The Iraqi researchers, he says, were arrested at the outbreak of the Gulf War and sent back to Iraq.

His revelations come as MPs on the Foreign Affairs Select Committee voiced concerns that the government's system of vetting overseas applicants for UK research posts in microbiology and genetic research is not effective enough.

MPs' concerns

Currently universities are asked to report applications for research posts to the Foreign Office if the applicants come from countries of concern and if they wish to work in potentially sensitive areas of scientific research.

Some MPs are calling for this voluntary reporting system to be made compulsory.

"I think we are extremely vulnerable indeed," said Labour backbencher and Select Committee member Andrew Mackinlay.

"We have little or no idea where the vast majority of these overseas students come from, what they've been doing hitherto, or what their affiliations are.

"In my view we need to have an inspectorate who can turn up at an academic institution at any time, go into a laboratory and say who is this person, what is he or she doing, where is their work?"

'File On 4' on bio-terror will be broadcast on Tuesday 19 November at 2000 GMT on BBC Radio 4.


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15 Nov 02 | Europe
22 Oct 02 | Politics
25 Jul 01 | Americas
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