Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime

May 8, 2008

For 50 years, weapons of mass destruction were primarily of concern to the military in the context of the Cold War, with the primary focus on nuclear weapons. The Soviet Union's demise moved attention to chemical and biological weapons in the hands of rogue states such as Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which used chemicals against Iran.

The attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon shifted concern to possible acquisition of WMD by terrorists, and the 2001 anthrax letters in Washington DC showed the potential for disruption even when casualties are minimal. The current decade has seen repeated warnings by governments that terrorist use of WMD is a case of "not if but when" and the introduction of draconian legislation, but no new incidents of any significance.

Should we be worried? If so, what should we do? Barry Kellman is convinced that the problem is real and can only increase because of the vital importance of the biosciences. He comes down firmly on the side of concerted international action. His book describes the horrific potential of deliberately spread disease, the history of attempts to use it in warfare and the scientific effort that military laboratories have put into improving the deadly properties of the biological agents and means of dissemination. He also describes diplomatic and legal efforts to date to provide effective control and national and international preparations to respond through public health agencies and the World Health Organisation.

Kellman's prescription is multifaceted. Bioscience research must be supervised but without stifling creativity or compromising commercially valuable secrets. Adequate effort needs to be put into combating the most deadly diseases. Terrorists must be prevented from acquiring dangerous agents. Laws need to be strengthened and international co-operation put on a sound footing. He offers some three dozen recommendations for action but is careful to point out the difficulties in achieving progress alongside the perceived benefits of each of these.

The real problem is the lack of public recognition of the seriousness of the issue and the lack of willingness by governments to work together effectively to create the necessary system of global governance. (Putting the issue in these terms shows the scale of the problem.) Nuclear weapons are reasonably well under government control and security is high. Chemical weapons are potentially much easier to obtain but their scope for really large-scale use by terrorist organisations is limited. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has achieved near-universal membership and works to supervise destruction of stocks of the most dangerous materials and to confirm legitimate use.

Unfortunately, as Kellman describes, efforts to put teeth into the Biological Weapons Convention and to create a parallel intergovernmental organisation have failed. Collective efforts to strengthen the regime to protect the world from bioviolence are frustrated by concerns to protect the economically vital biotechnology industry.

Maybe this comprehensive and thoughtful book can contribute to greater public awareness of the issues and to moving forward. It should be of particular interest to students of science policy, international security and global governance.

Bioviolence: Preventing Biological Terror and Crime

By Barry Kellman
Cambridge University Pres
390pp
£40.00 and £14.99
ISBN 9780521883252 and 709699
Published 1 November 2007

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