Biologists must wake up to warfare

February 13, 1998

Biological weapons are a cheap and easy way to cause mass deaths, but British scientists are supremely indifferent says Wendy Barnaby

THE stand-off in Iraq between Saddam Hussein and the United Nations weapons inspectors should have focused biologists' minds on the dangers posed by biological weapons. But British biologists are supremely indifferent.

Earlier this year I did an informal survey of ten biological societies in the United Kingdom for a book I was writing about biological weapons. Of the eight societies that replied not one knew about the capabilities of biological weapons, or was in the least interested, or felt any responsibility at all for the way scientific research is being misused.

A common reaction was that biological weapons, while possible, would be so ineffective and difficult to produce that there was no need to take them seriously. In fact they are a much cheaper and easier way of causing the same number of deaths than nuclear or chemical weapons. Evidence presented to a United Nations panel in 1969, and since backed up by the United States Office of Technology Assessment, estimates that mass casualties would cost about $2,000 per square kilometre with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear, $600 with nerve gas and just $1 with biological weapons.

Advances in biotechnology, far from being difficult to produce, mean that bacteria or virus cultures can be grown easily and secretly without the need for any special equipment. Saddam has proved it can be done. It should be no surprise that biological weapons appeal to middle-ranking countries with some scientific infrastructure. Apart from Iraq and Russia, which are known to have them, up to eight other countries are thought to have offensive programmes, including Iran, Syria, Israel, North Korea, Libya, China and Taiwan. Terrorists have also tried to make them.

Genetic engineering will make biological agents far more dangerous. It will enable them to be made more hardy and better suited to weaponisation. Future agents could be tailor-made to strike people with a particular genetic make-up: people with blue eyes, for example, or black skin. The head of science and ethics of the British Medical Association, Vivienne Nathanson, recently warned that one could imagine in Rwanda a weapon that targeted one of the two tribal groups, the Tutsi and Hutu. Such weapons are expected to be feasible within ten years.

Biologists should wake up. Physicists and chemists have had to try to deal with nuclear and chemical weapons. Why should biologists be different? They should start discussing biological weapons at conferences. They should pressurise governments to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention, which exists to try to control these weapons. They might help organise boycotts of pharmaceuticals companies that go on refusing to allow inspection of the manufacture of their products. They could encourage governments to be imaginative in helping developing countries meet their legitimate biotechnological needs, so that the third world does not obstruct a stronger regime of weapons control. As biologists have the knowledge to foresee better than others the results of their research, they also have the duty to inform themselves and to speak out.

Wendy Barnaby is a former diplomat turned science writer. Her book The Plague Makers is published by Vision.

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