about Epidemiology & the department

Epidemiology academic information

Epidemiology faculty

Epidemilogy resources

sites of interest to Epidemiology professionals

Last Updated

16 Sep 2003

Source: Reuters, September 9, 2003

New Steps Urged to Curb Biological Weapons Threat

By Patricia Reaney

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Days before the second anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center, biological weapons experts warned that more needs to be done to lessen the threat and prevent a new biological arms race.

Mark Wheelis, an expert from the University of California, Davis, said on Tuesday that existing intelligence was inadequate and an international inspection system might be needed.

"In the long-term if the international community wishes to constrain the biological weapons threat, two major steps will be necessary -- first, transparency in biodefense activities and secondly some kind of international regime to allow the resolution of suspicions," he told the British Association science conference.

Secrecy in biodefense provoked suspicion, he added, and was likely to fuel a new biological arms race.

Since the September 11 suicide hijack attacks in New York and Washington and the receipt of anthrax-tainted letters by politicians and media offices later that year, fears of the use of biological weapons have escalated.

Smallpox, anthrax and plague are the agents that cause the most concern because a deliberate release could cause widespread disease and panic.

"We have recent evidence in the last decade of significant failures of intelligence (of the existence and scope of a biological weapons program)," Wheelis said.

Malcolm Dando, a professor at Britain's Bradford University, said the simplification of technologies which could be misused meant small groups and deranged individuals could also pose a threat and cause mayhem.

"We are going to have to get a much more serious grip on control measures," he said.

Trevor Findlay, the executive director of the independent London-based Verification, Research, Training and Information Center, said the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention does not have a verification system to determine compliance.

The experts agreed that it was unclear what would happen in the event of a biological attack and whether any warning would be given before or after an attack.

They suspected the first sign was likely to be people becoming ill, but scientists would only be able to spot an attack by mapping the spread of the disease.

"There are a range of different scenarios that are possible and it isn't clear how these things will pan out," said Alastair Hay, a professor at Britain's Leeds University, adding that a chemical incident would be easier to map than a biological one.