Science in Society Archive

GM & Biological Weapons, Scientists Call for International Watchdog

In the immediate aftermath of the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, US and UK government officials have warned of the possibility of further attacks with chemical and biological weapons [1]. This underscores the urgent need to bring biological weapons under international peaceful control. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho

Back in July, the United States has rejected a Protocol that would strengthen the Biological Weapons convention (BWC) [2]. The BWC came into force back in 1975 and now has 143 state parties including the US, but it lacks provision to monitor and verify compliance. That is particularly serious in the era of biotechnology, when new and dangerous pathogens can easily be created in small research laboratories. Monitoring is difficult because biotechnology is used for "legitimate" purposes such as vaccine production or research on how bacteria and viruses cause diseases.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically 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 the superbug [3]. Russian scientists have engineered such a superbug in 1995, by splicing a gene from Bacillus cereus, a food borne pathogen, into the anthrax bacterium.

But even "legitimate" purposes have been raising serious safety concerns. There has been a series of breaches of safety regulations in university laboratories researching dangerous pathogens in Britain [4].

Serious concerns have been raised over the kinds of research that are being done in genetic engineering research 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 Gessinger from a clinical trial two years ago. The common gene therapy vector he received is now found to cause cancer in mice [13].

The events surrounding the foot and mouth disease outbreak in the UK, which is continuing since 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 [14].

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.

Genetic engineers are playing genetic Russian roulette with GM viruses. 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 an international organisation to monitor and control all GM experiments as a matter of urgency. This would be similar to the International Atomic Agency that controls all nuclear experiments and activities around the world.


Warren Bell
President, Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Canada

Joseph Cummins
Department of Plant Sciences, University of Western Ontario, Canada

E.E. Daniel
Chair, Working Group on Genetics & Biotech, Science for Peace, Dept. of Pharmacology, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Canada.

Huanming Yang
Director, Beijing Genomics Institute, Beijing, China

Gennadi Kobzar
Tallinn Technical University, Institute of Chemistry, Tallinn, Estonia

Hervé Le Meur
Chargé de recherche au CNRS, France

Vic Norris
IFR Systems Integres, Univ. Rouen France

Mackenzie Peers
Physical Chemist, CNRS, France

Devinder Sharma
Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security, India

Robert Anderson
Physicians and Scientists for Responsible Genetics, New Zealand

Linda Gray
Pacific Institute of Resource Management, Wellington, New Zealand

Hilary Phillips
Northland, Wellington, New Zealand

Michael Antoniou
Division of Medical and Molecular Genetics, King's College London, UK

Lynda Birke
Biologist, Llangollen, UK

Caroline & Geoffrey Clarke
Architect, Burnham, Norfolk, UK

Mae-Wan Ho
Director*, Institute of Science in Society, London, UK

Eva Novotny
For Science for Global Responsibility, London, UK

Michael J. Sackin,
Senior Computer Officer, University of Leicester, Leicester UK

Peter T. Saunders
Department of Mathematics, King's College, London, UK

Bill Smith
Inverness, Scotland, UK

David Schwartzman
Biology Department, Howard University, Washington, USA

Casey Walker
Editor & Publisher, Wild Duck Review, Nevada, USA

Veljko Veljkovic, Jelena Prljic, Nevena Veljkovic
Laboratory for Multidisciplinary Research, Belgrade, Yugoslavia

Sarojeni V. Rengam
Executive Director, Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific, Malaysia

Jan Tari
Press Officer, Scientists for Social Responsibility, UK

Meryl Nass, MD
Freeport, Maine, USA

David Schwartzman
Biology Department, Howard University, Washington, USA

Article first published 12/11/01

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