‘Ethnic-cleansing weapons’ within 10 years: report
Agence France Presse, 23 January 1999
LONDON, Jan 21 (AFP) - Advances in genetic research raise the possibility of biological weapons, available within 10 years, that would attack one ethnic group but leave others untouched, according to a report published Thursday.
Given the availability of bomb-making instructions and "recipes" on the Internet, the British Medical Association said, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 needs "urgent" strengthening.
While "genetic weapons which target a particular ethnic group are not currently a practical possibility", the report concludes "it would be complacent to assume they could never be developed in the future".
The report "Biotechnology, weapons and humanity" by the BMA, which represents all Britain's doctors, predicted their existence within "five or 10 years" and warned of their attractiveness to terrorists.
"Scientific knowledge has been quickly exploited for weapons development in the past," said Vivienne Nathanson, of the BMA, adding she saw no reason why this trend would alter with genetics.
The report explains that genetic research into humans leads almost every day to further understanding of the differences in disparate human groups.
Such differences were apparent in blood groups or varying resistence to disease, such as developed by certain groups in west Africa against malaria.
Two key developments were highlighted by the experts. One is the Human Genome Project which aims to map the entire human genetic blueprint by 2003.
The other is gene therapy, a technology still in its infancy, which uses "vectors" such as harmless viruses to carry corrective DNA into malfunctioning cells.
The BMA warned that theoretically nothing could stop the development of "viral vectors or micro-organisms" (bacteria, virus, etc) capable of targeting an enemy group with a particular genetic make-up while sparing their neighbours.
"In short, if there are distinguishing DNA sequences between groups, and if these can be targeted in a way that is known to produce a harmful outcome, a genetic weapon is possible," said the report.
Far from being science fiction, it cited a report in the strategic military magazine Jane's on worries expressed by US Defence Secretary William Cohen in June 1997 about "certain types of pathogens that would be ethnic specific so that they could eliminate certain ethnic groups".
"The scientific community is very close to being able to manufacture" such weapons, said Cohen.
There have also been sporadic reports of Israeli developing such weapons to use against Arabs and white South Africans targeting blacks in a similar fashion.
On November 15, Britain's Sunday Times reported Israel was working on an "ethnic" biological weapon which will hit Arabs and not Jews by distinguishing between their genetic differences.
Quoting Israeli military sources and western intelligence services, the report said researchers were trying to isolate distinctive "Arab" genes in order to develop a virus, transmitted by air or water, which would target them specifically.
The programme, based in the top secret Ness Ziona germ warfare laboratory south of Tel-Aviv, is complicated by the fact that Jews and Arabs are genetically close, both being of semitic origin, the report said.
The BMA did not argue that all genetic research should stop, recognising its possibilities for saving lives and advancing medical treatment.
But the report stressed: "Getting rid of of weapons once they are produced is very difficult; governments may be reluctant to give up weapons that the rest of the world finds unacceptable."
The BMA said it was particularly anxious to see effective verification procedures introduced to ensure compliance with the biological weapons ban, and stressed that vigilance by doctors and scientists was "vital".
"We still have the chance to strengthen the ban on these weapons," said Nathanson. "We must do so now and we must make sure the ban is policed effectively."