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Wednesday, 11 December, 2002, 16:10 GMT
Warning over university terror risk
Hazardous materials unit on Capitol Hill a year ago
Countries "must work together" to combat bio terrorism
International terror groups could obtain lethal germ warfare agents by infiltrating British universities, the NHS and commercial science laboratories, MPs have warned.

Compulsory vetting of students on some courses is among a range of measures suggested to stop terrorists getting hold of deadly biological materials, by the Commons foreign affairs committee.

Chairman Donald Anderson told the BBC that recognising the "horrific potential" of the threat would help tighten up controls.

The threat from biological weapons is a global problem

Commons foreign affairs select committee
But Professor Ray Dixon, a fellow of the Royal Society, said adequate checks were in place.

"There is very little work done in British universities on dangerous pathogens or the type of pathogens that one would consider in terms of biological warfare," he added.

The MPs' warning followed claims by a leading microbiologist that some of Britain's top laboratories were infiltrated by Iraqi scientists researching germ warfare in the run-up to the Gulf War.

Anthrax attacks

No terrorist group threatening the UK is thought to have obtained biological weapons, but the MPs said the risk should be "addressed with the utmost seriousness".

Anthrax
The threat of an anthrax attacks worried MPs
Their concerns were increased by last year's anthrax attacks in the United States.

They believe a fully qualified scientist who supported a terrorist group could join a UK research programme.

"Such a scientist could thus gain unhindered access to dangerous materials or pathogens," they add.

Voluntary controls

The extent of the problem at universities was highlighted by the discovery the head of the Iraqi biological weapons programme, Rihab Taba, studied at the University of East Anglia in the 1980s, Mr Anderson said.

Donald Anderson MP
Donald Anderson is calling for tighter controls
At present universities whose research causes the most concern take part in a voluntary controls scheme.

But only 70% of those in the government's "medium concern" bracket are involved, and 85% of those in the "low concern" category.

The scheme does not cover the NHS or wholly commercial laboratories.

Mr Anderson said it should now be made compulsory and a list of all dangerous pathogens in the country drawn up.

Diana Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, said it was looking at ways to strengthen the voluntary scheme.

"In view of the heightened security situation we would of course encourage all our members... to refer students to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where they have any concerns," she added.

But Cambridge University professor Tim Minson has reservations about such a "blanket" approach to vetting students working in this field.

"It may be workable but it will certainly make it unattractive to take overseas university students and it will be unattractive for them to apply," he said.

Pathogens

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said controls on security in laboratories had been tightened after 11 September.

She said the Anti-terrorism and Crime Act passed in December last year made it compulsory for any laboratory which had pathogens to inform the Home Office.

"There was close co-operation between the government and the research community," she said.

Under the act, laboratories which hold pathogens have to allow the local police in to check security.

The police can ask for the names and details of people working in the laboratories and can take necessary action, according to the Home Office.

Generous grants

The MPs also want a new international co-ordinating mechanism to be set up, to help weaker countries develop better criminal laws against biological weapons.

In contrast US officials claim traditional arms control treaties cannot work for biological weapons because the materials are found everywhere in the natural world.

The MPs said a new UN secretariat similar to the one in place for monitoring chemical weapons should be set up.

Their recommendations were made after Oxford microbiologist Dr Joseph Selkon said Iraqi scientists infiltrated UK laboratories before the Gulf War.

He said they were financed by generous grants from the Iraqi government and applied for and gained research posts in academic and medical institutions.

He claimed his suspicions about one candidate sparked extra security checks, which revealed leading microbiology laboratories had been targeted by nine or 10 Iraqi scientists.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Duncan Kennedy
"Ministers have called for closer vetting of students"
Donald Anderson, foreign affairs committee
"The person heading biological weapons research in Iraq was educated in the UK in the 1980s"

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See also:

11 Dec 02 | Education
22 Oct 02 | Politics
09 Dec 02 | Politics
15 Nov 02 | Europe
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