Time To Get Tough With The Biotech Firms Over Germ Warfare

Time To Get Tough With The Biotech
Firms Over Germ Warfare

Published on Thursday, September 27, 2001 in the Guardian of London

Now For GM Weapons
It's Time To Get Tough With The Biotech Firms Over Germ Warfare
by Jeremy Rifkin

For the first 10 days we worried about commercial airplanes being
hijacked and used as missiles. Now, the American people are worried
about a new, even more deadly threat: bacteria and viruses raining from
the sky over populated areas, infecting and killing millions of people.
The FBI reports that several of the World Trade Center hijackers had
made a number of visits to a facility in Florida housing crop-duster
planes. According to the proprietors, the hijackers asked questions
about the load capacity and range of the planes.

The FBI has subsequently ordered all 3,500 of the nation's privately
owned crop dusters grounded, pending further investigation. Meanwhile,
universities, including the University of Michigan, Penn State, Clemson
and Alabama, have barred aircraft from flying over their stadiums during
football games, for fear of a biowarfare attack. Policy makers are
scurrying to catch up, by allocating funds to stockpile antibiotics and
vaccines, and upgrading emergency procedures at hospitals and clinics.
Unfortunately, to date, the politicians, military experts and media have
skirted a far more troubling reality about bio-terrorism. The fact is,
the new genomic information being discovered and used for commercial
genetic engineering in the fields of agriculture, animal husbandry and
medicine is potentially convertible to the development of a wide range
of novel pathogens that can attack plant, animal and human populations.
Moreover, unlike nuclear bombs, the materials and tools required to
create biological warfare agents are easily accessible and cheap, which
is why this kind of weapon is often referred to as the "poor man's
nuclear bomb". A state-of-the-art biological laboratory could be built
and made operational with as little as $10,000-worth of off-the-shelf
equipment and could be housed in a room as small as 15ft by 15ft. All
you really need is a beer fermenter, a protein-based culture, plastic
clothing and a gas mask.

Equally frightening, thousands of graduate students in laboratories
around the world are knowledgeable enough in the rudimentary uses of
recombinant DNA and cloning technology to design and mass-produce such

Ironically, while the Bush administration is now expressing deep concern
over bioterrorism, just this summer the White House stunned the world
community by rejecting new proposals to strengthen the biological
weapons convention. The stumbling block came around verification
procedures that would allow governments to inspect US biotech company
laboratories. The companies made it clear that they would not tolerate
monitoring of their facilities for fear of theft of commercial secrets.
Biological warfare involves the use of living organisms for military
purposes. Biological weapons can be viral, bacterial, fungal,
rickettsial, and protozoan. Biological agents can mutate, reproduce,
multiply, and spread over a large geographic terrain by wind, water,
insect, animal, and human transmission.

Once released, many biological pathogens are capable of developing
viable niches and maintaining themselves in the environment
indefinitely. Conventional biological agents include Yersinia pestis
(plague), tularemia, rift valley fever, Coxiella burnetii (Q fever),
eastern equine encephalitis, anthrax and smallpox.

Biological weapons have never been widely used because of the danger and
expense involved in processing and stockpiling large volumes of toxic
materials and the difficulty in targeting the dissemination of
biological agents. Advances in genetic engineering technologies over the
past decade, however, have made biological warfare viable for the first
time. Recombinant DNA "designer weapons" can be created in many ways.
The new technologies can be used to program genes into infectious micro-
organisms to increase their antibiotic resistance, virulence and
environmental stability.

Scientists say they may be able to clone selective toxins to eliminate
specific racial or ethnic groups whose genotypic makeup predisposes them
to certain disease patterns. Genetic engineering can also be used to
destroy specific strains or species of agricultural plants or domestic

The new genetic engineering technologies provide a versatile form of
weaponry that can be used for a wide variety of military purposes,
ranging from terrorism and counterinsurgency operations to large-scale
warfare aimed at entire populations.

Most governments, including the US, claim that their biological warfare
work is only defensive in nature and point out that the existing
biological weapons treaty allows for defensive research. Yet it is
widely acknowledged that it is virtually impossible to distinguish
between defensive and offensive research in the field. Professional
military observers are not sanguine about the prospect of keeping the
genetics revolution out of the hands of the war planners. As a tool of
mass destruction, genetic weaponry rivals nuclear weaponry, and it can
be developed at a fraction of the cost.

The revelation that Iraq had stockpiled massive amounts of germ warfare
agents and was preparing to use them during the Gulf war renewed
Pentagon interest in defensive research to counter the prospect of an
escalating biological arms race.

Saddam Hussein's government had prepared what it called the "great
equalizer", an arsenal of 25 missile warheads carrying more than
11,000lb of biological agents, including deadly botulism poison and
anthrax germs. An additional 33,000lb of germ agents were placed in
bombs to be dropped from military aircraft. Had the germ warfare agents
been deployed, the results would have been as catastrophic as those
visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A study conducted by the US
government in 1993 found that the release of just 200lb of anthrax
spores from a plane over Washington DC could kill as many as 3m people.
Iraq is not alone in its interest in developing a new generation of
biological weapons. In a 1995 study, the CIA reported that 17 countries
were suspected of researching and stockpiling germ warfare agents,
including Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Egypt,
Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Bulgaria, India, South Korea, South Africa, China
and Russia.

In the 20th century, modern science reached its apex with the splitting
of the atom, followed shortly thereafter by the discovery of the DNA
double helix. The first discovery led immediately to the development of
the atomic bomb, leaving humanity to ponder, for the first time in
history, the prospect of an end to its own future on Earth. Now, a
growing number of military observers are wondering if the other great
scientific breakthrough of our time will soon be used in a comparable
manner, posing a similar threat to our very existence as a species. No
laboratory, however contained and secure, is fail-safe. Natural
disasters such as floods and fires, and security breaches are possible.
It is equally likely that terrorists will turn to the new genetic

In November, 143 nations will assemble in Geneva to review the 1972
biological weapons convention, a treaty designed to "prohibit the
development, production and stockpiling of biological and toxin
weapons". Negotiators, including the US representatives to the talks,
need to address the serious loophole in the existing treaty that allows
governments to engage in defensive research when, in fact, much of that
research is potentially convertible to offensive purposes.

And the commercial concerns of US and other biotech companies around
the world to protect trade secrets and other commercial information should
not be allowed to derail protocols designed to verify and enforce the
provisions of the biological weapons convention. It is time to get tough
and do the right thing. One would think that the welfare of human
civilization would be more important than the parochial interests of a
handful of life science companies.

Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Biotech Century (Penguin, 1998) and
president of the Foundation on Economic Trends
<http://www.biotechcentury.org/current.html in Washington, DC


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