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].

  • In August, Imperial College of London University was prosecuted and ordered to pay £65 000 in fines and legal fees for exposing the public to a deadly new hybrid of the dengue fever virus and gene sequences associated with hepatitis C.
  • Earlier in the year, Imperial College was prosecuted for a 'seriously flawed' approach to health and safety involving research on HIV, the virus associated with AIDS.
  • Birmingham University was fined for putting staff and public at risk of contracting TB after ventilation filters in the medical school laboratories were found not to be working properly.
  • In May, the National Environment Research Council's laboratory in Oxford was criticised by government inspectors over its safety procedures involving genetic engineering research on a potentially lethal encephalitis virus.
  • In 1999, Edinburgh University was the first research institution to be prosecuted for work on HIV under new regulations governing research on dangerous genetically modified microorganisms in the lab.
  • There have been 12 other violations of the law designed to stop dangerous new GM viruses escaping into the environment.

Serious concerns have been raised over the kinds of research that are being done in genetic engineering research laboratories around the world.

  • A lethal mousepox virus was created in Canberra Australia, in a genetic engineering experiment to design a contraceptive vaccine for mice [5].
  • A mutant Ebola virus was engineered in Marburg Germany that was significantly more lethal to cells than the natural virus, in the course of investigating the virus' ability to cause disease [6].
  • Researcher in Kyoto University Japan and in other laboratories have created 'SHIVs', hybrids between the human and monkey AIDS virus containing human interleukin genes that suppress immune response against viruses, in order to investigate the role of the interleukins in AIDs disease [7].
  • At the same time, GM crops engineered with interleukin genes are being grown in open field trials [8].
  • One SHIV used in monkeys and mutated into a pathogen so powerful that it kills rhesus macaques in weeks [9]. But this is now used as an AIDS vaccine challenge in all United States NIH-funded efforts.
  • Genetic engineers are creating new viruses in the process of cloning, or just to show it can be done [10].

The safety of genetic engineered vaccines is being called into question.

  • Evidence is accumulating that AIDS vaccines based on the HIV glycoprotein not only undermine the immune system of individuals but are also likely to create deadly viruses and bacteria that can spread through entire populations [11].
  • A live GM vaccinia-rabies vaccine for wild-life has infected a woman resulting in serious illness [12].

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.

  • "Attack on US raises specter of germ war, or worse" by Andrea Shalal-Esa, San Francisco Chronicle, September 15.
  • "US rejects stronger bioweapons treaty" Emma Dorey, Nature biotechnology 19, 793.
  • "U.S. Germ Warfare Research Pushes Treaty Limits" by Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William J. Broad, New York Times, September 4, 2001.
  • "Threat from fatal bugs as labs breach safety rules" by Antony Barnett, The Observer, August 19, 2001.
  • "Disaster in the making" by R. Nowak, New Scientist 2001, 13, 4-5.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • See "GM AIDS virus more lethal" by Joe Cummins & Mae-Wan Ho ISIS Report, July 19, 2001; also, this issue.
  • See "Skeptical about AIDS vaccine; testing method questioned" by Laurie Garrett, Newsday (New York), September 6, 2001.
  • See "Genetic engineering superviruses" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS News 9/10, July 2001, ISSN: 1474-1547 (print) ISSN: 1474-1814 (online)
  • 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
  • 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.
  • "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.
  • "Foot and mouth outbreak, GM vaccines & bio-war exercise" by Mae-Wan Ho, ISIS Report September 245, 2001; also this issue.
  • "Investigators say anthrax strain was modified" by Sanjay Bhatt and Meghan Meyer, October 10, Cox News Service, via


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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