Search OCA
Get Local!

All it takes to start germ war is a lone fanatic with a washcloth

April 21, 2001 New Scientist magazine

EVER tried to dream up the cheapest and simplest way to disrupt a major economy? It's easy. Take a trip to one of the 20-odd countries with foot and mouth disease. Wipe an animal's blistered tongue with a clean washcloth. Fly to the enemy's country with the cloth in a plastic bag in your luggage, and wring it out in a drinking trough at a livestock market. Walk away.

If the foot and mouth disease ravaging Britain has taught the world anything, it is this: germs make great weapons. No one seriously believes Britain's current outbreak was deliberate; why would anyone attack the isolated farm where it started when there are much more obvious targets? But the world now knows that a tiny amount of well-placed virus can send a country's farming and tourist industries reeling, upset its exports and disrupt elections.

This ought to be concentrating minds in all countries where livestock are as vulnerable to infection as in Britain. Especially up on Capitol Hill. Experts calculate that if the US had a similar outbreak, there might not be enough vaccine, nor the time to slaughter enough animals, to head off a massive epidemic. The nation's TV viewers might balk at the scale of slaughter required. The expense would be astonishing. Not a bad result for a lone fanatic with a washcloth. Think what more sophisticated terrorists could achieve by spraying the virus from planes.

So what can we do? We can start with a verification protocol for the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. A programme of inspections and declarations aimed at making it harder for countries to develop biological weapons is supposed to be agreed by November this year, but negotiations are bogged down as the Bush administration decides its policy. Its predecessors have opposed the stringent inspections Europe and many others want, claiming that this would jeopardise the commercial secrets of American biotech firms. Few expect Bush to draw back from this misguided protectionism. But that is what he should do.

Take Iraq. It used to make its own foot and mouth vaccine till UN inspectors had the vaccine plant destroyed because it was part of Saddam's biological weapons empire. Now the Iraqis want to rebuild. So what should the world do: leave Iraq vulnerable to a disease that would give it ample source material to launch a strike on Kansas or Kent; or let the Iraqis build a factory that could be used for real, large-scale viral mischief? Neither: we should let the Iraqis make their vaccine, but have a verification regime in place that allows the rest of us to make sure that is all they are doing.

A verifiable bioweapons treaty may not stop the lone fanatic with a washcloth, but properly implemented, it should make sophisticated viral attacks less likely. When negotiations resume next week in Geneva, the world has an opportunity to unite against the germ warriors. Britain's pyres of burning animals should encourage them to seize it.


Home | News | Organics | GE Food | Health | Environment | Food Safety | Fair Trade | Peace | Farm Issues | Politics
Forum | Español | Campaigns | Buying Guide | Press | Search | Volunteer | Donate | About Us | Contact Us | Email This Page

Organic Consumers Association - 6771 South Silver Hill Drive, Finland MN 55603
E-mail: Staff · Activist or Media Inquiries: 218-226-4164 · Fax: 218-353-7652
Please support our work. Send a tax-deductible donation to the OCA

Fair Use Notice: The material on this site is provided for educational and informational purposes. It may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. It is being made available in an effort to advance the understanding of scientific, environmental, economic, social justice and human rights issues etc. It is believed that this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have an interest in using the included information for research and educational purposes. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. The information on this site does not constitute legal or technical advice.
Please Support Our Sponsors!

Organic Valley

Organic
Valley

Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps

Dr. Bronner's
Magic Soaps

Botani Organic

Botani
Organic

Aloha Bay

Aloha Bay

Eden Organics

Eden Foods

Frey Vineyards

Frey
Vineyards

Intelligent Nutrients

Intelligent
Nutrients