Talk presented to Workshop on Bio-weapons and GM, during the Fifth Review Conference of the Biological Weapons Convention, Geneva, 20 November, 2001, by Dr. Mae-Wan Ho
Abstract The basic tools and materials for making bio-weapons are the same as those used in 'legitimate' GM applications. There is little or no effective defence against bio-weapons, and GM may be worse. While bio-weapons are made under strictly contained conditions, many dangerous experiments are being done without adequate safety precautions, and hazardous GM products released into the environment as if they were safe. We urgently need to bring both GM and bio-weapons under peaceful international control.
The Biological Weapons Convention to stop proliferation of biological weapons came into force in 1975 and now has 144 state parties, but it lacks provision to monitor and verify compliance. That is particularly serious in the era of genetic engineering, when new and dangerous pathogens can easily be created in small research laboratories. Monitoring is difficult because genetic engineering is used for "legitimate" purposes such as vaccine production or research on how bacteria and viruses cause diseases.
Biological weapons have been back on the agenda ever since it transpired that USSR had been active in bio-weapons research towards the end of the cold war. Earlier this year, the US government drew up plans to engineer a potentially more potent variant of the deadly anthrax bacterium in order to assess whether the vaccine now being given to millions of American soldiers is effective against a more deadly version of the bacterium . Russian scientists have created such a super-bug in 1995, by splicing a gene from Bacillus cereus, a food borne pathogen, into the anthrax bacterium.
Unfortunately, there is little or no effective defence against biological weapons. Events following the anthrax attacks are showing up huge inadequacies in coping with bio-warfare . Vaccines are no protection, and may be worse than useless. Vaccines cannot be made against unknown diseases. Of the known diseases, the most feared are smallpox and anthrax. But vaccines stocks are depleted and deteriorating, as are antidotes for treating adverse reactions due to vaccines.
The side effects of smallpox vaccines include an often fatal reaction known as vaccinia necrosum that destroy flesh and muscle, encephalitis (inflammation of the brain), aggressive eczema, and in people suffering from immune damage such as those infected with HIV, a dangerous pox infection. Today, there are hundreds of thousands in the US with weakened immune systems from HIV and other viruses, as well as from drugs used to treat cancer and prevent rejection of organ transplants. Such people could become ill from the vaccine and infect others, precipitating an epidemic.
Moreover, vaccines cannot be tested for efficacy and safety in the absence of a substantial population of the afflicted.
The Food and Drug Administration is attempting to overcome this deadlock. It published and requested comments on a proposed rule for approving new drugs and biological products developed to prevent serious or life-threatening conditions based only on evidence of effectiveness derived from animal studies. In other words, in a state of emergency, human beings will have to be guinea pigs. Large pharmaceutical companies are currently being compelled to manufacture some 300 million doses of smallpox vaccine as an unlicensed "investigational new drug".
Efforts by the Pentagon to vaccinate 2.4 million military personnel with the anthrax vaccine have run into stubborn opposition by soldiers, sailors and airmen who maintain that a disproportionate number of those taking the shots have suffered dangerous side effects. This vaccine has been implicated in Gulf War syndrome and deaths.
An article in Nature Genetics warns that, compared with chemical and nuclear weapons, "biological weapons pose by far the greatest threat, because they can be as lethal as nuclear weapons and are easier to obtain" .
New knowledge of the human and other genomes is making it possible to enhance antibiotic resistance and virulence of pathogens. Pathogens could be made harder to detect, diagnose and treat simply by recombining parts from several pathogens. Researchers in Australia who inadvertently transformed the relatively harmless mouse-pox virus into a lethal pathogen, also showed how that could be done: by incorporating a gene that undermines the immune system . Predicted for decades, the possibility of targeting specific human populations and ethnic groups may be getting closer to reality, although no race-specific genes have been identified thus-far, and hopefully never will.
And "legitimate" uses of GM have been raising serious safety concerns.
There have been numerous breaches of safety regulations in university laboratories researching dangerous pathogens in Britain, such as dengue fever virus, AIDS virus, TB bacteria, and lethal encephalitis virus .
Many dangerous research projects are being carried out in genetic engineering laboratories around the world.
The safety of genetic engineered vaccines is being called into question.
The hazards of gene therapy research are beginning to unfold since the death of teenager Gelsinger from a clinical trial two years ago . The common gene therapy vector that killed him from toxic shock is now found to cause cancer in mice .
Earlier, the most common gene transfer vector used in plants was found to transfer genes into the human genome, with the potential to cause genetic damage including cancer .
The soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, from which endotoxin (Bt) genes are extracted and widely incorporated into GM crops as bio-pesticide, was found to be a very close relative of the anthrax bacterium . Furthermore, at least some Bt genes are toxic or allergenic for human beings .
The events surrounding the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK, which started in February this year, suggest that it may be linked to tests of GM vaccines against the foot and mouth disease virus in 'simulated' bio-warfare emergencies . There was an early report that the anthrax strain involved in the US attacks was genetically modified , though this has not been confirmed.
GM experiments are in some respects worse than biological weapons. For every biological warfare agent, it is possible to know its biological origin, its mode of action, where it is produced and where it is released, providing the BWC Protocol can be agreed. But in the case of accidental creation of deadly pathogens in GM experiments, or contamination with GM microorganisms, none of these parameters is known, and in most cases cannot even be predicted. In the event of disease outbreaks, diagnosis will be delayed, and more people will get ill and die.
Moreover, bio-warfare agents are made under strictly contained conditions, whereas potentially dangerous agents are being inadvertently widely released into the environment or into human populations as though they were safe.
Genetic engineers are playing genetic Russian roulette with GM viruses and bacteria. The barrel of the gene gun is pointed at all of us: humans, domesticated plants and animals and wild life included.
There is an urgent need for goodwill on all sides, to bring both bio-weapons and genetic engineering under peaceful international control.
Article first published 29/11/01
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