UK must act now to defend itself against bio-terrorism, says BMA

If the development of biological and genetic weapons is not curtailed, it will be "virtually impossible" for Britain to defend itself from terrorist bio-weapons attack, according to the British Medical Association (BMA).

The association's new report, 'Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity II', has painted a bleak picture of the global community's ability to cope with advances in biological and genetic weapons technology, and warned that the "window of opportunity" to take action is shrinking fast.

Today's BMA report, which is a follow up to its first study in 1999, analysed 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.

The study considered the dangers of nightmare scenarios where bio-terrorists re-create the 1918 'Spanish' flu; damage the agricultural industry and food production through crop viruses; render smallpox vaccines useless by modifying immune response; and create agents that attack the immune and nervous system.

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's 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."

Key recommendations from the report include strengthening the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) when it comes up for review in 2006. Governments should also commit to supporting the appeal of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) on biological weapons, and scientists must be aware of how their work might impact on legal and ethical norms that prohibit the development and use of biological weapons.

The report has been sent to the Foreign Secretary, to relevant government departments and international agencies.


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