BBC NEWS Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific

BBC News World Edition
 You are in: UK: Politics  
News Front Page
Middle East
South Asia
N Ireland
Talking Point
Country Profiles
In Depth
BBC Sport
BBC Weather
Tuesday, 22 October, 2002, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
UK 'needs germ warfare inspections'
Hazardous materials unit on Capitol Hill a year ago
Law covering scientists' activities is 'woefully inadequate'
Scientists could be developing biological weapons in British laboratories without anyone knowing, a senior Labour MP has warned.

Andrew Mackinlay claimed the government did not have "the foggiest idea" about what the vast majority of scientists in the UK were up to.

You have no idea of what he's doing ... and what is in the back of the fridge

Andrew Mackinlay
He argued that a regime of unannounced inspections of academic and scientific institutions was needed as the "only potential serious impediment to banditry in this area".

But Tim Dowse, head of the Foreign Office's non-proliferation department, stressed that Institutes of Higher Education provided tip offs to the FO about any students from countries of concern.

He did agree, however, that there was "a gap" in the international network of agreements over the protection of dangerous pathogens or agents causing disease.

'Thousands of scientists'

The exchanges came as Mr Dowse and his deputy Patrick Lamb gave evidence on biological weapons to the Commons foreign affairs select committee.

Mr Mackinlay said the law covering the scientists' activities was "woefully inadequate".

He was "petrified" at the thought that an anthrax scare which claimed the lives of a number of US citizens was manufactured in that country.

He told Mr Dowse: "A few miles from here, you and I could go up to Bloomsbury and some very fine post-graduate institutes. There are thousands of scientists in this country.

Andrew Mackinlay
UK scientific institutions need an 'unannounced inspections' regime', says Mackinlay
"It's a fact, isn't it that neither you or I, nor Her Majesty's Government have the foggiest idea of what the vast majority of those scientists are doing and who they are. There is no spot check, is there?"

Mr Dowse retorted that under the vetting scheme, institutions were briefed about concerns over proliferation of biological weapons.

"We also brief them on courses of study that would give us concern, that could be of benefit to a proliferator," he said.

"And we encourage the participating institutions to let us know if they receive an application from a student from a country of concern for a course of concern.

"We are then able to advise if the individual concerned is someone who will give us difficulty, where we feel they should not be allowed to study this course.

"We have quite a good take up of the scheme."

Academic freedom

But Mr Mackinlay said: "The fact is, you could have a highly probable post-graduate person here, employed for a contract to carry out some research - 95% of its time, he or she could be doing that.

"You have no idea of what he's doing and you have no way of finding out what he is doing the other 5% of the time and what is in the back of the fridge, have you?

"Surely the answer has to be, you need to be able to go into these institutes and say, who is this man, what is he doing and what is in there?"

Patrick Lamb insisted that his department had liaised with the universities and they had been "very intent and keen on maintaining" academic freedom.

"These academic institutions both in the UK and elsewhere are wrestling with the problems of how to control both those who have access to that type of work, and indeed, the freedom of their research being published more widely."


This prompted Mr Mackinlay to argue: "It seems to me the only prevention is if there is a possibility of an inspection regime coming in, unannounced, that's the only potential serious impediment to banditry in this area."

But Mr Dowse said assisting in the development of a weapon of mass destruction was a criminal offence.

Meanwhile, Tory Sir John Stanley told the committee that a litre of anthrax placed on a high building in an urban area could kill up to three million people.

He said the government should have an approval system for scientists who could culture anthrax, smallpox and the plague, plus records on where the cultures were and the quantities of them.

Mr Dowse said there were regulations that addressed the issue of storing biological dangerous pathogens.

But, he said: "These regulations have been drawn up essentially with health and safety in mind rather than the terrorist issue in mind.

"It does seem, I think, a gap in the international network of agreements that there are no international standards in this area.

"It is one of the proposals that we put forward in the green paper that there should be a new convention on the physical protection of dangerous pathogens."

Key stories





See also:

24 Mar 02 | South Asia
18 Sep 02 | Politics
18 Sep 02 | Politics
15 Sep 02 | Middle East
Internet links:

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

E-mail this story to a friend

© BBC ^^ Back to top

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East |
South Asia | UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature |
Technology | Health | Talking Point | Country Profiles | In Depth |