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What About Biological Weapons, Mr Bush ?

By Devinder Sharma

While fears of terrorist attacks with biological or chemical weapons have become very real in the aftermath of the WTC attack, in actuality the United States' is one of the main forces thwarting attempts to put curbs on this deadly research with the greatest potential for destruction of life.

On a clear, calm night, a light plane flying over New York, equipped with a crop sprayer and carrying a small cargo of 200 kilograms of anthrax spores, could deliver a fatal dose to millions of inhabitants of the Big Apple. And by the time the rest of the world wakes up to the horror of the new terror from the sky, there would be no defensive measures to protect the people from the epidemic spread of new and uncontrollable diseases.

The entire city can be wiped out in one aerial strike. Anthrax is actually a bacterial disease of cattle and sheep, but its pneumonic form can kill humans. Properly 'weaponised' to the precise particle size, the spores pass through the lungs to other tissues releasing toxins in the process. In a matter of few days, the victims collapse from respiratory failure, hemorrhage and toxic shock, turning the bustling city into a city of death and destruction.

This is no science fiction. It is, in fact, a chilling sequence based on the 1993 report of the United States Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) on weapons of mass destruction. Ironically, as the world is being told that Osmana Bin Laden is scouting for biological weapons to fight the American onslaught after the barbaric demolition of the twin towers at the World Trade Centre in New York, it is the United States that leads in developing biological weapons and that too in the name of 'a broader research effort to improve US defenses against biological agents.'

The New York Times reported on September 4 that the Pentagon had secretly built a germ factory in the Nevada desert capable of producing enough deadly bacteria to kill millions of people. It also divulged that the Nevada project is one among the number of covert biological initiatives pursued by the US over recent years. This has angered the Russians, and to some extent the Europeans, who have voiced concern over American plans to develop a potentially more lethal version of the bacterium that causes deadly anthrax.

Accordingly, American scientists have constructed at Camp 12 of the Nellis Air Force Range in Nevada a 50-litre cylinder capable of cultivating germs out of materials bought commercially from hardware stores. While the aim was to demonstrate how easy it is for a terrorist group to construct one of its own without being detected, the fact remains that the simple procedures to amass biological weapons was already known and well established. In another experiment, the Pentagon is planning to engineer a more potent version of the bacterium that causes anthrax.

It is primarily for this reason that George Bush had recently refused to sign the draft agreement aimed at further strengthening the 1972 Convention on Biological Weapons, which prohibits nations from developing or acquiring weapons that spread disease, but allows work on vaccines and other protective measures. Being a signatory would have made the US disclose the biological germ research even if it is for defensive purposes. The 'high-handedness' of the American government, when it comes to going by the international norms and protocols, has earlier been exposed with the US President refusing to sign the Kyoto protocol on climate change and by threatening to dismantle the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty because it 'affected' American interests !

Sadly, Mr Bush's flawed policy initiatives are a complete turnaround from what his predecessor, Richard Nixon, had unilaterally followed by renouncing biological weapons in 1969, stating: "mankind already carries in its hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction." Perhaps, the American President is looking for another dominant industry (in biological weapons) to sustain the US economy. Already, America has sold arms worth US dollars 152 billion ever since the end of the cold war. And as the Center for International Policy in the US estimates, nearly 80 per cent of these arms exports to the developing world go to non-democratic regimes. And not surprisingly, while the stocks tumbled after the New York blasts, that for arms and ammunition have shown a remarkable increase.

How serious is the threat can be gauged from what the OTA report states. It's list of probable weapons of mass destruction includes plague; small pox; tularemia, a plague-like disease; and botulism, caused by a toxin from the common food-poisoning bacteria Clostridium botulinum. Such biological weapons have long been the stuff of nightmares, but recent developments have turned this into a grim reality as we entered the new millennium. The threat becomes more serious with more and more biotechnology companies emerging on the horizon and given the fact that the technology does not require much sophistication and investment.

In the recent past, the aftermath of the Gulf War brought into focus the horrors of germ-warfare that lie in store. Microbiologist Raymond Zilinskas of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute in the US, who participated in the UN's hunt for Iraq's biological weapons after the Gulf War, told the journal New Scientist, " The Iraqis, as far as we know, never mastered the art of weaponising their bacterial agents, which included anthrax. Most of what the UN investigators found were crude preparations mounted on conventional bombs and missiles, which might not have dispersed very well." But he notes that less ambitious attacks also pose a threat. For example, a crude slurry of anthrax spores left in the tunnels of an underground railway system, where wind created by passing trains would dry and blow them around, could claim thousands of lives.

Iraq is not the only country to have gone into the production of biological weapons. Ken Alibek, a former deputy director of a top branch of the then Soviet Union's germ-warfare programme who defected to the United States in 1993, has in an explosive book , "Biohazard," revealed two of the world's biggest biological weapon programmes. Accordingly, China had suffered a serious accident at one of its secret plants for developing biological weapons. Soviet spy satellites had found a large biological-weapons laboratory and plant near a remote site for testing nuclear warheads. Intelligence agencies corroborated the fact with reports of two epidemics of hemorrhagic fewer that swept the region in the late 1980s. "Our analysts concluded that they were caused by an accident in a lab where Chinese scientists were weaponising viral diseases", he writes, adding that viral scourges that caused intense bleeding included Marburg fever and the dreaded Ebola virus, both endemic to Africa.

Alibek had helped run about a dozen of the 40 institutes that were part of Biopreparat, the civilian cover group, used "exclusively" for offensive agents and weapons for the Soviet military. Significantly, it was after his defection that the American Administration had accused China of indulging in a biological weapon programme. The Chinese had denied the allegations. "Biohazard" also talks of the Soviet programmes that included tinkering with the genetic make-up of anthrax disease so as to make it resistant to five kinds of antibiotics. He blames the Soviets for clandestinely obtaining a sample of the AIDS virus from the US in 1985 and efforts to turn it into a weapon.

And as Alibek warns, the biological weapon programme is not only confined to one or two countries. After he fled and took up residence in the US, he has been approached by several countries and ostensibly for his deadly expertise in the art of germ-warfare. Included among these are South Korea, France and Israel.

Much of the problem is because the international community has given a free hand to the unstinted growth of the biotechnology industry. The genetic engineering industry, entirely in private hands, is outside the purview of any regulation and control of the society or the democratic systems at large. In fact, it is the political leadership, whether in the US, Britain, Japan, Australia or in developing countries like India and China, that provides support and promotes the horizontal spread of the genetic engineering industry merely to seek more finances for electioneering and party funds. Perhaps the global community is awaiting another dastardly disaster from offensive genetic engineering before it decides to 'retaliate.' It will then be too late.

Devinder Sharma is a biotechnology policy researcher and analyst.
He can be contacted at:
Tel: 011-525 0494/526 5212

More resources by Devinder Sharma:
UNDP's Human Development Report 2001 - Biotechnology will Bypass the Hungry

Basmati patent: Let us accept it, India has lost the battle

Biotechnology : Exploiting the Poor and the Hungry

More Resources on Genetic Engineering
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