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Take action now on biological weapons before it's too late, warns BMA
BMA Press release date: Monday, 25 Oct 2004 (BMA London)

A new report released today (25 October 2004) by the BMA paints a bleak picture of the global community's ability to cope with advances in biological and genetic weapons technology.

The report,
Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II, warns that the 'window of opportunity' to take action on this issue is shrinking fast. The BMA first published a report on this subject in 1999.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA Head of Science and Ethics, said: "The situation today is arguably worse than it was when we published our last report five years ago. 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 of all, it's never been easier to develop biological weapons – all you have to do is look on the internet."

She added: "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."

The new BMA report analyses whether terrorist attacks like 9/11, anthrax attacks in the US in 2001 and the Moscow Theatre siege in 2002 have impacted on the development of biological weapons.

If the development of biological and genetic weapons is not curtailed, a future scenario could see the following:

  • weapons that target specific ethnic groups
  • imitation viruses, for example the re-creation of the 1918 'Spanish' flu
  • crop control (viruses can be highly contagious and cause enormous damage to the agricultural industry and food production)
  • bio-regulators (agents that could attack an individual's immune and nervous system – such as the fentanyl derivative that was used by Russian authorities to end the Moscow theatre hostage crisis in 2002)
  • genetically engineered anthrax
  • modified smallpox immune response (this would render current smallpox vaccines useless)
  • synthetic polio virus
Commenting on the report, Professor Malcolm Dando, author of this study and Head of Peace Studies at Bradford University, says: "The problem is that the same technology being used to develop new vaccines and find cures for Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases could also be used for malign purposes. That is why it is essential that an ethical code be developed for scientists. Questions need to be asked about where research could lead, where the results will be published and who has access to the data."

Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II, warns of the overwhelming power of biological weapons. In 1999 it was only thought theoretically possible to develop weapons that could target specific ethnic groups. Five years on this is now approaching reality [1].

Key recommendations from the report [2] include the following:
  • states should find ways of agreeing and strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) when it comes up for review in 2006 – any agreement should be legally-binding
  • states should hold a conference on the 30th anniversary of the BTWC (26 March 2005) where they should demonstrate that they have met all their obligations under the BTWC
  • governments must pass legislation to implement fully the requirements of the BTWC
  • governments should commit to supporting the appeal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on biological weapons [3]
  • scientists must be aware of how their work might impact on legal and ethical norms that prohibit the development and use of biological weapons
  • scientists should discuss with funders whether research into some areas should be prohibited because of the danger of results being used in the development of prohibited weapons
The report covers:
  • 'Progress' since the 1999 report
  • The current political stagnation
  • The ongoing scientific and technological revolution
  • Offence versus defence
  • The spectre of future malign applications
  • A call to action
  • Recommendations
By producing this report the BMA hopes to raise awareness about the threat of biological weapons amongst doctors, other health professionals, the public and the government. The report has been sent to the Foreign Secretary, to relevant departments of state and to international agencies. It is available from major bookshops @ 9.99 and will be distributed via amazon.com.

Ends

Notes to editors
1. Ethnic weapons are covered in detail on page 86 of the report.
2. All recommendations begin on page 117 of the report.
3. The ICRC has called upon national governments to make public declarations on their stance on biological and genetic weapons. The full text of the appeal is on page 137 of the report, a summary follows:
Alarmed by the potential hostile uses of biotechnology, the ICRC appeals to:
  • all political and military authorities to strengthen their commitment to the international humanitarian law norms which prohibit the hostile uses of biological agents and to work together to subject potentially dangerous biotechnology to effective controls
  • the scientific and medical communities, industry and civil society in general to ensure that potentially dangerous biological knowledge and agents be subject to effective controls.
The report is on the BMA website at : www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/Content/BioWeaponsII

Keywords: Warfare