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Are we prepared for biological terror?. Nature and Duality. Let us look at biological threats. Since 11 September 2001, 5 persons are thought to have died from deliberate contamination with Anthrax - none in Europe. In the same period over 20 million people died from AIDS, TB and Malaria.

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Let us look at biological threats

Since 11 September 2001, 5 persons are thought to have died from deliberate contamination with Anthrax - none in Europe.

In the same period over 20 million people died from AIDS, TB and Malaria.

Altogether natural infections probably killed over 100 million world-wide. Many diseases are unrecognised infections - cancers caused by viruses, heart disease caused by Chlamydia pneumoniae etc.


What use for biological weapons?

  • Toxins apart, BW are not battlefield weapons. Living pathogens take time to incubate, but in the period before engagement, can eliminate combat readiness, destroy public morale and harm economies. The “Spanish Influenza” of 1918-19, which killed perhaps 50 million, probably did more damage to the global economy than the First World War!
  • For economic aggression - food supplies or strategic capabilities may be targeted. For example a bacterium might be developed specifically to attack the lubricating oil used in a weapons platform.

Duality is fundamental

  • The desirable biodegradation of petrochemical spills might lead directly to an agent destroying a weapons platform lubricant.
  • Should we ban research into oil-eating microbes?

The European Union and dual use: 1

  • Council of European Union 10 December 2003

Vaccine development and weapon development - one technology

Traditional vaccine technologies frequently use live attenuated microbes grown in fermenters. These same fermenters can be used for producing fully active offensive agents (such as anthrax or smallpox).

Should dual use worries add another layer of difficulty for vaccine producers? This will hurt children and developing nations most.

Is this what we want?


Biological weapons affect animals, plants and biodegradable materials

In the First World War the British planned to use anthrax to damage the German army’s transport capability - then still dependent on horses.

The 1969-71 Southern Corn Blight outbreak destroyed 15% of the USA’s maize crop.

The post-reunification German government supported research to biodegrade the plastic body of East German Trabant motor vehicles which constituted a stock of ecologically undesirable organic material.


Concerns about biological weapons -

the up-side of dual use

Fear of deliberately aimed biological weapons arguably is creating a useful capacity to react to “The Next Virus”.

New R&D into pathogens, new vaccine production capability and reinforced epidemiological surveillance targeted at biological weapons use, have a direct and positive effect on civil and military readiness for Bioterror or Mother Nature’s next aberration.


Costs of biological agents - plants

In the opening years of the 21st century crop losses from diseases and parasites cost the USA up to $5 billion per annum.

This loss is to the benefit of foreign competitors.

When does economic competition step over the line into economic warfare?


Costs of biological agents - human

In Europe of the 25 EU members health delivery is about 12% of GDP or about €800 billion. Total cost of health delivery in the USA is about 15% of GDP, $4,000 per person or over $1 trillion!

About 15% of this gigantic total, about €300 billion will represent the overall costs of fighting infection.

How much do we spend on preparedness?


Infectious agents can ruin the EU economy

Man-made or natural infectious outbreaks could decimate the global economy.

Randomly taking 20 million workers out of the EU economy would have catastrophic consequences. Treating 20 million sick, and perhaps dying, would be an enormous (insurmountable?) logistical challenge.


Since 1972 signatories to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) have renounced weapons development

Most have honoured this commitment, but the USSR and now Russia have been conspicuously in breach. The USA has been accused.

All G7 nations have the capacity (i.e. dual-use potential) to move from vaccine production to weapons production in days.


New initiatives to prevent weapons proliferation - are they realistic?

  • Restricting access to scientific data for certain categories of person
  • Classification of certain areas of biological research
  • Restricting access to the tools for genetic manipulation

In my view - NO!

Responsible editorial practice has until now limited the untoward use of potentially harmful scientific information. Change is unnecessary.

The new biology has great potential to do good in the world, yet unfounded scare campaigns in the rich nations are preventing poor nations’ access to essential technologies.

Look at the EU’s ridiculous stance on food produced from gene modified organisms.


And NO again!

Why should the rich world have a say in how Iran or Egypt develop vaccines? Our record is not good. Where are the vaccines for malaria, AIDS, or TB? Where are the plans for generating economic growth in the most needy of nations?

It is easy to recruit poor individuals in poor societies by telling them that the rich western world is responsible.

Are we supporting terrorists by failing to address global health and economic issues?


We create enemies!

Is the theoretical possession, or capability of deployment, of "weapons of mass destruction" (and the resulting isolation and sanctions) itself used as an economic weapon against those developing nations which dare to defy the economic hegemony of the rich?

Will dual-use potential be used as an argument to prevent access to essential technologies?


How is Europe preparing?

Together with the USA, Europe is a major contributor to the growth of knowledge in life science.

Overall Europe’s (EU plus Switzerland) public sector probably spends about €10 billion on life science research.

Europe’s private sector spends about €28 billion on life science research (mostly in the pharmaceutical sector).


Biological research and defence

What basic research has relevance to defence and preparedness for infectious or toxin agents?

Epidemiology looks at disease in populations

Microbiology looks at infectious agents

Immunology natural response to infection

Vaccinology vaccine surrogates for agents

Human, animal and plant biology cover the range of human health and economic consequences of attacking animal and plant food sources.


Risk and Threat

The tools of modern biology are susceptible to mis-use. This is also true for motor vehicles, screwdrivers or kitchen knives. Any heavy object can be used as a weapon.

So with modern biology a RISK of abuse exists. But is it true to suggest that this risk translates into THREAT that is to say a “real and present danger”.

Preparedness should seek to identify the translation of risk into threat. When does a kitchen knife become a weapon? When does a fermenter become a weapon producing tool?


Government/Industrial collaboration

European and US industry lead the world in vaccine development capability, fermentation technologies and fast response to challenges.

Together with public health laboratories and academic research, industry can act quickly to respond or to anticipate an epidemic disease manifestation.

Government must catalyse the relevant dialogue through structured initiatives that offer sensible incentives to industrial and public sector partners.



  • Dual use potential is everywhere
  • However, the risk in the area of modern biology is - I believe - exaggerated
  • The naturally emerging Next Virus may be deadly
  • Industry has capability but little incentive to be prepared - dual-use issues are a constraint!
  • Sensible application of a BTWC protocol, coupled with minor reinforcement of existing regulatory regimes could avoid dual-abuse.

Karl SimpsonBénézech - SimpsonHameau de Bobon07610 VIONFrance

Tel: +33-4-75 06 86 30