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.

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