Science in Society Archive

GM & Biological Weapons, Scientists Call for International Watchdog

In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 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]. Emerging evidence indicates that genetic engineering experiments could pose even greater risks to public health. There is an urgent need to bring both GM & biological weapons under international peaceful control.

Back in July, the United States 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 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 created 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 Gelsinger 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 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 [14]. Most recently, cases of anthrax have emerged in the United States under suspicious circumstances, and the first anthrax strain identified was reported to be genetically modified [15].

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 ofthese 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 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 an international organization 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.

Please add your signature to this document, based on which we shall be drafting letters to international organizations.

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

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

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

Herve Le Meur
Department of Mathematics, University of Paris, France

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

Huanming Yang
Director, Beijing Genomics Institute, Beijing, China

And others


  1. "Attack on US raises specter of germ war, or worse" by Andrea Shalal-Esa, San Francisco Chronicle, September 15.
  2. "US rejects stronger bioweapons treaty" Emma Dorey, Nature biotechnology 19, 793.
  3. "U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits" by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William J. Broad, New York Times, September 4, 2001.
  4. "Threat from fatal bugs as labs breach safety rules" by Antony Barnett, The Observer, August 19, 2001.
  5. "Disaster in the making" by R. Nowak, New Scientist 2001, 13, 4-5.
  6. Volchkov VE, Volchkova VA, Muhlberger E, Kolesnikova LV, Weik M, Dolnik O, Klenk H-D. Recovery of infectious Ebola virus from complementary DNA: DNA editing of the GP gene and viral cytotoxicity. Science 2001, 291, 1965-9.
  7. Kosyrev, Miura T, Haga T, Kuwata T and Hayami M. Construction of SIV/HIV-1 chimeric virus having the IL-5 gene and determination of their ability to replicate and produce IL-5. Arch Virol 2001, 146,1051-62.
  8. See "GM AIDS virus more lethal" by Joe Cummins & Mae-Wan Ho ISIS Report, July 19, 2001 ; also, this issue.
  9. See "Skeptical about AIDS vaccine; testing method questioned" by Laurie Garrett, Newsday (New York), September 6, 2001.
  10. See "Genetic engineering superviruses" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 9/10, July 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  11. Veljkovi V, Metlas R, Kohler H, Urnovitz HB, Prljic J, Veljkovic N, Johnson E and Muller S. AIDS epidemic at the beginning of the third millennium: time for a new AIDS vaccine strategy. Vaccine 2001, 19, 1855-62; see also See "GM AIDS Vaccines Dangerous" ISIS Report, 29 July 2001
  12. Rupprecht CE, Blass L, Smith K, Orciari LA, Niezgoda M, Whitfield SG, Gibbons RV, Guerra M and Hanlon CA. Human infection due to recombinant vaccinia-rabies glyco-protein virus. The New England journal of Medicine 2001, 345, 582.
  13. "Common gene therapy vector causes cancer as well as toxic shock" by Mae-Wan Ho and Joe Cummins, ISIS Report September 20, 2001 also this issue.
  14. "Foot and mouth outbreak, GM vaccines & bio-war exercise" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report September 245, 2001 also this issue
  15. "Investigators say anthrax strain was modified" by Sanjay Bhatt and Meghan Meyer, October 10, Cox News Service, via

I-SIS News 11 index

Article first published October 2001

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