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New developments in the biosciences, and their potential for misuse, make it more — not less — urgent to reach an international consensus on the means to prevent the development and spread of biological weapons.

Last week, Craig Venter, one of the world's leading genome researchers, announced details of a new project: an attempt to generate a totally artificial living organism. The scientific attraction of such a project, according to Venter, is straightforward. Namely that investigating the minimum number of genes required to produce a self-sustaining organism will provide important clues to the functioning of all forms of biological life as we know it.

But, as Venter has been the first to admit, there is a potential downside to such research too. In the wrong hands, the ability to produce new, tailor-made organisms could easily be used as the basis of a new generation of biological weapons. The answer to this threat, says Venter and his colleagues, is not to prevent the research from taking place, but to ensure that it is carried out within strict ethical and safety guidelines.

The same argument can be made at an international level. Few argue that biotechnology should be stopped because of its ability, at least in principle, to produce destructive organisms of previously unknown specificity and effectiveness. The answer lies in developing a strict international regulatory regime designed to ensure that this does not happen. Such a regime must have the strong support of the international scientific and political community, and must include tough sanctions on those that ignore or break the rules.

Geneva negotiations

Coincidentally, the news of Venter's latest project came shortly after the conclusion of the latest round of international negotiations that have been been struggling to achieve just such a goal. Diplomats in Geneva attending latest review conference of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 have been engaged in renewed efforts to forge a common approach to controlling the spread of biological weapons.

Their task has been made all the more urgent by recent rapid advances in the biosciences. But it has also been precipitated by the political pressures surrounding, on the one hand, the threat of 'bioterrorist' attacks on the United States and other western nations, and on the other, the fears that Iraq — the target of the recent UN resolution on weapons inspections — may still possess a well-hidden biological weapons programme.

The task of the negotiators has also been undermined by moves by the United States. In particular, the Bush administration announced last December, to the consternation of its Western allies, that it was withdrawing from negotiations that had been taking place for the previous seven years on the procedures necessary to verify compliance with the Convention. This is despite the fact that the lack of such compliance mechanisms is widely regarded as the Achilles heel of an agreement that has otherwise been praised as a model arms control agreement.

A new US strategy

The US administration says that it took this move because it did not believe that the international approach being followed by the negotiations were likely to be effective. Rather, it has now endorsed a different strategy. This is to focus firstly on bilateral efforts to restrain biological weapons development, secondly on the voluntary adoption by countries of appropriate national regulations to achieve this objective, and thirdly on encouraging scientists to take personal and institutional responsibility — through commitment to a code of conduct — for not engaging in research programmes intended to produce such weapons.

Few observers believe that there were not political motivations behind the new US negotiating strategy. Shifting the focus from international to bilateral diplomacy, for example, allows the United States to differentiate its approach on 'bioweapons' issues between those it considers to be its allies and those that it sees as its enemies. At the same time, its withdrawal of support for negotiations on an international monitoring regime owes much to fears within the US biotechnology industry that giving foreign inspectors open access to its laboratories could become a vehicle for industrial espionage.

Yet placing stress on the need to encourage a purely voluntary approach to regulation avoids the difficult question of the sanctions that should be applied to those who refuse to adhere to accepted guidelines. This applies as much to proposals for a 'code of conduct' to be followed by biotechnology researchers as it does to leaving individual states to set their own regulatory laws. Desirable as they may be, such codes invariably fail to make a significant impact if they are not accompanied by procedures to punish those who break or otherwise ignore them.

The reality of the situation, as the negotiators in Geneva have accepted, is that little progress is likely to occur in verifying adherence to the BTWC unless it works within a new framework that is at least compatible with that which has been laid down by the United States. The challenge therefore facing negotiators -- who agreed at the end of their meeting to revise their agenda to take the new US position into account -- is how to achieve this.

Scientists' involvement is needed

Various prerequisites are clear. One is that developing countries, already mistrustful of US strategy in the BTWC negotiations — even before last year's shift — will need a powerful incentive to continue to support efforts to achieve an international consensus. One way of doing this will be for the developed world (which stands to lose the most from the lack of such consensus) to provide additional support for training courses and skills enhancement across a wide range of areas related to biotechnology — including courses in biosafety.

Indirectly related to this is the need to establish these countries' trust in Western military strategy, particularly in the fight against international terrorism. Nothing is likely to damage such trust more than a military campaign against the current regime in Iraq that lacks clear and credible evidence of that regime's continued complicity in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction — including chemical and biological armaments.

A third prerequisite is the endorsement of the scientific community for enhanced efforts to regulate and monitor research in the biosciences, and to recruit scientists, even if informally, into a global surveillance scheme. This need was recently identified in the journal Science by Bruce Alberts, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, and his British counterpart Robert May, president of the Royal Society (see Scientist support for biological weapons controls). In the article, the two scientists argued, for example, that "every researcher, whether in academia, in government research facilities, or in industry, needs to be aware of the potential, unintended consequences of their own and their colleagues' research."

A viable alternative

It has been done before. In the early 1970s, as Alberts and May remind their readers, it was molecular biologists who first called attention to the potential safety hazards of genetic engineering. The brief moratorium on this work agreed at the famous meeting at Asilomar in 1975 laid the foundation for a global system of safety rules that has, so far at least, avoided the type of catastrophes that many were predicting, at least as far as the civilian applications of the new biosciences is concerned.

Furthermore there are signs that at least some influential members of both the pharmaceutical and biotechnology professions would welcome a tough science-based international regulatory regime. This was the conclusion, for example, of a panel put together by the Henry L Stimson Center in Washington DC (see 'Compliance Through Science'). This has proposed a regime based on universal minimum standards for biosafety and biosecurity, and oversight of research on genetic modification, underpinned by penalties for non-compliance. And firm proposals for an international monitoring process along these lines have new been put forward by the Washington-based Federation of American Scientists and a group of other organisations.

No one pretends that creating such a regime is likely to be easy. And many will have their reservations about it. But in an unstable world, it offers the most realistic opportunity for effective, multilateral action. And it would certainly avoid the perils of a unilateral approach whose own criteria of success threaten to create an even more unstable world in the future.

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