Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity
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Structure and scope of
How to order
Structure and scope of report
The aim of the report is to consider new developments in biotechnology,
especially human genetics, which could be incorporated into the
available weaponry of nation states and terrorist organisations. In
particular, the report considers whether weapons could be based on
genetic knowledge and if so, how legislation and other measures could
prevent such a malign use of scientific knowledge.
This chapter sets out the aims and objectives of the report within the
context of concern shown by the medical profession at the 48th WMA
meeting held in South Africa in 1996. Chapter 2 provides a history of
offensive biological weapons programmes and of international arms
control efforts in the twentieth century to prohibit such programmes.
Chapter 3 then outlines the major features of the modern biotechnology
revolution and why this has caused such concerns about the possible
development of new biological weapons. As an example of these
concerns, the possible development of 'ethnic' weapons based on
advances in our understanding of human genetics and targeted at
specific racial/ethnic groups is examined in Chapter 4. In Chapter 5 the
currently available mechanisms of control of offensive biological
weapons programmes are described, and in Chapter 6 suggestions for
further measures to help deter states and organisations from developing
such weapons are reviewed. Chapter 7 presents recommendations for
action and further research by the scientific and medical community,
both nationally and also on an international basis.
As will become apparent, biological weapons come in many forms and
can be used in many different ways. However, the main cause for
concern is that these weapons, which are basically unregulated and
rather easy to develop, could proliferate in areas of regional instability,
or enter the available weaponry of terrorists. Such proliferation should be
viewed in the context that since 1948 the United Nations have
considered biological weapons as weapons of mass destruction, ie in
the same category as nuclear weapons.
This report discusses the relationship between medicine, biotechnology
and humanity. It considers the development of weapons which may
become a major threat to the existence of Homo sapiens, and a
development of biotechnology which perverts the humanitarian nature of
biomedical science. It is all the more frightening that medical
professionals may contribute, willingly or unwittingly, to the development
of new, potent weapons. This potential for malign use of biomedical
knowledge also places responsibility on doctors and scientists to protect
the integrity of their work.
Genetic engineering can be of great benefit to medical science and
humanity, but can also be used for harm. Genetic information is already
being used to improve elements of biological weapons — such as
increased antibiotic resistance — and it is likely that this trend will
accelerate as the knowledge and understanding of its applications
become more widely known, unless effective control systems can be
agreed. The pattern of scientific development is such that developing
effective control systems within the next five to ten years will be crucial to
future world security.
The world faces the prospect that the new revolution in
biotechnology and medicine will find significant offensive military
applications in the next century, just as the revolutions in chemistry
and atomic physics did in the twentieth century.
Biological weapons have been used sporadically in conflicts
throughout history. They have been developed in line with scientific
advances, making them increasingly potent agents. Since 1948
they have been categorised as weapons of mass destruction.
Despite the 1925 Geneva Protocol and the 1975 Biological and
Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) they are, in reality, poorly
regulated and controlled.
Prohibitions on the development and use of biological and toxin
weapons have not been fully effective; intense and urgent efforts
are needed to make the BTWC an effective instrument.
Biological weapons may already be in the hands of a number of
countries, and are also a realistic weapon for some terrorist
groups. Control mechanisms must address not only the types of
agents which might be used as weapons, and the protection
against, and response to, their use, but also the ability of
non-governmental groups to possess and use such weapons.
Over the last few decades rapid advances in molecular biology
have allowed the heritable material (DNA) of different organisms to
be interchanged. The Human Genome Project and the Human
Genetic Diversity Projects are allowing the identification of human
genetic coding and differences in normal genetic material between
different ethnic groups.
During the review conferences on the BTWC, an increasing level
of concern has been expressed by national governments over the
potential use of genetic knowledge in the development of a new
generation of biological and toxin weapons.
Legitimate research into microbiological agents, relating both to
the development of agents for use in, for example agriculture, or to
improve the medical response to disease causing agents, may be
difficult to distinguish from research with the malign purpose of
producing more effective weapons.
Scientists should recognise the pressures that can be brought to
bear on them, and on their colleagues, to participate in the
development of weapons.
The recent history of conflict is predominantly of wars within states,
often between different ethnic groups.
Consideration of ethnic weapons have historically been based
upon natural susceptibilities, or upon the absence of vaccination
within a target group. Genetic engineering of biological agents, to
make them more potent, has been carried out covertly for some
years, but not as an overt step to produce more effective weapons.
In genetic terms there are more similarities between different
people and peoples than there are differences. But the differences
exist, and may singly or in combination distinguish the members of
one social group (an “ethnic” group) from another.
Research into the development of specific treatments for many
medical conditions (both genetic and acquired) using genetic
knowledge and genetic techniques, is currently consuming a
significant proportion of the pharmacological research budget
internationally. This research considers essentially the same
molecular techniques as would weapons development.
There are massive imbalances between states in the availability
and sophistication of weapons, both conventional and nuclear.
This is no reason for delaying further the establishment of effective
measures to control the proliferation of biological weapons.
Processes to enhance and strengthen the existing Biological and
Toxin Weapons Convention are essential to prevent the further
spread of the current generation of biological weapons. Effective
monitoring and verification procedures would also be powerful
controls against the development of genetically targeted biological
Modern biotechnology and medicine have essential roles in
improving the quality of life for people in the developed and
developing world; molecular medicine has much to offer people
throughout the world. Procedures to monitor against the
abuse/malign use of this knowledge and technology may also
contribute significantly to the development of effective disease
'Recipes' for developing biological agents are freely available on
the Internet. As genetic manipulation becomes a standard
laboratory technique this information is also likely to be widely
available. The window of opportunity for developing effective
controls is thus fairly narrow.
The medical profession has played a significant part in the
development of International Humanitarian Law, especially through
the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The work of
doctors with the ICRC on the SIrUS project offers real hope of an
extension of this area of law to reduce the suffering which might be
caused by new weapons technology.
Realistically doctors should accept that even with effective
international legal instruments, some weapons development with
molecular biological knowledge will go ahead. Doctors must
therefore be prepared to recognise and respond to the use of such
weapons, and to advise governments on plans and policies to
minimise their effect.
Urgent action is essential to ensure that the BTWC is
strengthened, and to reinforce the central concept that biological
weapons, whether simple or complex in design and production,
are wholly unacceptable.
The physician's role is the prevention and treatment of disease.
The deliberate use of disease or chemical toxins is directly
contrary to the medical profession's whole ethos and rationale.
Such misuse must be stigmatised so that it is completely rejected
by civilised society.
There is a need for Government action at a national and
international level to complete effective, verifiable and enforceable
agreements and countermeasures before the proliferation and
development of new biological weapons makes this almost
impossible. Doctors and scientists have an important role to play
in campaigning for, and enforcing, adequate preventive measures.
The Board of Science and Education's recommendations for
achieving these goals can be found in Chapter 7.
Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity
is available from major booksellers
and from the:
London WC1H 9JR
tel: 0171 383 6244
fax: 0171 383 6455