Brussels, 02 Mar 2005
French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin has called for efforts to improve the security of laboratories working with potentially dangerous substances, as well as an international database to keep track of potential biological threats.
Speaking at an Interpol meeting in Lyon on international cooperation to tackle bioterrorism, Mr de Villepin also called for an international monitoring centre to stop dangerous toxins falling into terrorist hands; a public information campaign to teach people more about the threats of a biological attack and for adequate vaccine stocks for such a possibility.
Mr de Villepin suggested the creation of a common European and international database which 'could include a cartography of the sensitive laboratories, an alert network for theft, disappearances and suspect transactions of sensitive products, as well as a list of groups or individuals subject to increased attention, because of their attempt to acquire sensitive agents,' he stated.
According to the minister, biotechnology companies, research laboratories, hospitals and universities need to become more aware of the risks of bioterrorism, as well as the risks associated with hiring staff; working on dangerous pathogens and granting access to sensitive areas.
He recommended the creation of a global watchdog, linked to the United Nations and working in close collaboration with the World Health Organization (WHO), to look into any suspect ordering of products and publicise any risk of contamination.
Mr de Villepin went on to plead for a better coordination of Biotox-style (the French government response to the deliberative introduction of the smallpox virus) plans at European level. 'Why not to imagine for example a European reaction plan against a biological attack?' he asked. Furthermore, he added, the EU should initiative an update on reserves of vaccines so that each country knows the nearest country to turn to in case of emergency.
France has already created a Technological Centre for Interior Security and Mr de Villlepin has asked the director to 'develop as a priority high-tech technologies in the fields of information and investigation,' he explained.
Dominique de Villepin also announced his intention to increase the number of controls for water and the food chain, as well as the number of simulation exercises of chemical or biological attacks. He indicated that currently a vaccination of the population against small pox could be carried out within two weeks.
Interpol president Jackie Selebi also warned of the risks to the international food chain and domesticated animals, saying 'the consequences of bioterrorist attack against livestock are substantial.'
Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble concluded by stating that police need improved communication systems and better contact with the scientific community to help them prepare for such a disaster. He noted two shortcomings that could hinder a fast response to a biological attack. He said police need a worldwide list of scientists and health experts who could be consulted in an emergency, and a high-tech system whereby one police force could alert others around the world of a terrorist threat.
The French appeal comes at the same time as a rebellion by some 750 US scientists against increased investment in biodefence research. In a letter to the US National Institutes of Health, more than half of the scientists studying bacterial diseases argue that the diversion of funding has created 'a crisis for microbiological research'.
While funding for biodefence research increased 15-fold between 1998 and 2005, the letter claims that the number of grants for non-biodefence disease germs fell by per cent, and grants for studying model bacteria fell by 41 per cent.