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Gene wars only a few years away, say doctors

London Times| Oct 26 2004

There is concern that bio-weapons could be programmed to wipe out specific ethnic groups within five years

GENETICALLY targeted weapons capable of ethnic cleansing could become a reality within five years because the “window of opportunity” to tackle their development is shrinking fast, doctors said yesterday.
The warning comes after a report by the British Medical Association (BMA), which stated that within a decade genetic research would unleash new and terrifying biological weapons capable of killing only people of specific ethnic groups.

Since the publication of the BMA’s first study five years ago, the association believes that governments have failed to halt the advance of biological and genetic weapons technology.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, head of science and ethics at the BMA, said: “The situation today is arguably worse than when we published our last report.

“The very existence of international laws to protect us is being questioned, the anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 caused widespread panic and fear and, most worryingly, it’s never been easier to develop biological weapons. All you have to do is look on the internet.”

Scientists are making great progress in identifying the human genetic code. BMA doctors are worried that legitimate research, often conducted to find potential therapies for debilitating diseases, could be perverted to develop weapons of mass destruction.

The author of the report, Malcolm Dando, head of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, has studied arms control for 20 years. “Every major piece of scientific research has been used for malign purposes,” he said.

“If the life sciences are misused, there are major threats to human rights, human dignity and human safety.”

Although the BMA insisted that genetic weapons have yet to be built, it conceded that their construction “is now approaching reality”. If a genetic bomb was developed, it could contain anthrax or the plague and be tailored to activate when it identified a certain group of genes — indicating membership of a particular ethnic group — in the infected person.

“Questions need to be asked about where the research could lead, where the results will be published and who has access to the data,” Professor Dando said.

He also gave warning that the threat from biological weapons has outstripped that of chemical and nuclear weapons because of the “riotous” development in biotechnology.

“Unless great care is taken to ensure openness about the vastly increased funding going into the US and other biodefence programmes, suspicions could easily arise and inadvertently help to fuel an arms race which would be in all our worst interests”, his report, Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II, published yesterday, stated.

Professor Dando added that if biological advances continue unabated, then terrorists could misuse the research to wreak widespread havoc and destruction.

The reluctance of the United States to agree a multilateral approach to biological monitoring has hampered the international community’s attempts to stop the spread of biological, chemical and genetic weapons, he said.

“The US took their eye off the ball during the Clinton Administration. There were clearly inter-agency differences; therefore, although we had announcements that were in favour of strengthening existing agreements, they didn’t take a leadership role.”

In 1975 the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) was set up to try to provide protection from the proliferation of biological weapons. Calls in 1999 to strengthen the convention “failed abysmally” after the US Government claimed that imposing controls on biotechnology would interfere with benign research being carried out. As a result, the United States pulled out of international talks aimed at boosting the BTWC in 2001.

Yesterday the BMA urged governments around the world to find a way to strengthen up the convention. The doctors also called for scientists to realise the potential risks and responsibilities of their cutting edge work.

Dr Nathanson said: “This report does not make comfortable reading, but it is essential that governments take action on this issue now. If we wait too long it will be virtually impossible to defend ourselves.”






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