Leigh Dayton, The Australian (Sydney), October 27, 2004
Biological weapons that target selected ethnic groups could become part of the terrorists’ arsenal unless governments and scientists act now, the British Medical Association warns.
Such designer weapons would be based on the growing ability of scientists to unravel and compare human DNA.
In theory, experts could engineer organisms to attack genetic variations commonly found in, say, Chinese or German populations.
Genetically engineered anthrax, smallpox and polio viruses are also “approaching reality”, the BMA claims in a new report, Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II.
The report, released yesterday in London, adds that organisms designed to attack food crops and even human immune and nervous systems are serious threats.
For instance, the agent used by Russian authorities to end the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002, a fentanyl derivative, is an example of a “bio-regulator” targeted against the human nervous system.
“All of the above are feasible or possible if anyone would be mad enough or evil enough to do it,” commented University of Melbourne immunologist Sir Gus Nossal.
“There already exist potential biological weapons of enormous destructive power, chief among them smallpox and anthrax,” added Professor Emeritus Nossal, who in 1979 announced the eradication of smallpox on behalf of the World Health Organisation.
He agreed with BMA head of science and ethics Vivienne Nathanson that, “If we wait too long it will be virtually impossible to defend ourselves (against biological weapons)”.
According to the BMA report the “window of opportunity” to control the spread of powerful biological weapons is shrinking fast.
That’s so, said the report’s author, Malcolm Dando of Britain’s Bradford University, because “the same technology being used to develop new vaccines and find cure’s for Alzheimer’s and other debilitating diseases could also be used for malign purposes”.
Professor Dando said it was essential that governments worldwide beef up the international Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention when it comes up for review in 2006.
The BTWC prohibits signatory states from acquiring biological weapons and means of delivery them.
But eminent Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner questioned the effectiveness of the BMA recommendations.
“It’s all very well to say governments ought to adhere to these suggestions, but they didn’t adhere to them before and even now the US Government says it’s not going to take any notice of the (BTWC),” he said.
According to Emeritus Professor Fenner — who was central to the development of myxoma virus to control rabbits, as well as the WHO smallpox eradication campaign — public health strategies designed to respond to biological weapons such as smallpox are more likely to be effective.
In Canberra, a spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australia signed the BWTC in 1972 and ratified it in 1977.