African science policy ‘must address bioterror threat’

Rod shaped Anthrax bacteria in the spinal fluid of an infected person Copyright: CDC

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[KAMPALA] The threat posed by biological weapons must be considered in policies relating to the development of science in Africa, according to delegates at an international meeting in Kampala, Uganda this month.

The meeting, which ended on 1 October, focused on the policy implications of using science to eradicate diseases while simultaneously controlling access to disease-causing organisms to prevent ‘bioterrorism’.

Delegates called for strict measures to be formulated to guard against the misuse of biology, and warned that failure to address concerns over biological weapons could undermine efforts to develop and instill confidence in science.

"Confidence in modern science is giving way to a period of fear, doubt and uncertainty," said Patrick Mazimhaka, deputy chair of the Ethiopia-based African Union Commission.

In a joint statement released at the meeting, delegates said: "Addressing all of these concerns in harmony is mandatory for human security in Africa and throughout the world."

Scientists, lawyers, government officials and law enforcers attended the meeting, which was organised by the Kampala-based International Law Institute (ILI) and the US-based International Consortium for Law and Strategic Security (ICLSS).

Swithin Munyantwali, ILI’s executive director told SciDev.Net that the meeting was intended to kick-start greater cooperation on the threat of bio-weapons throughout East Africa.

The region has experienced a number of terrorist incidents in recent years, including the bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1999 and a rocket attack on a hotel in Mombassa, Kenya in 2002.

Munyantwali said Africa is highly vulnerable to bioterrorism as it lacks the institutions, technology and expertise needed to detect potential threats.

"Bio-weapons are an optimal way of causing mass casualties, are safe for the perpetrator to develop and transport across borders, and pose incomparable potential for mass panic," he said. "No other weapon offers similar capabilities to spread itself."

Potential bio-weapons include the anthrax bacterium, which the US Department of Defense calls "the preferred biological warfare agent because it is highly lethal [and] contains 100 million lethal doses per gram (100,000 times deadlier than the deadliest chemical warfare agent)".

Uganda’s Queen Elizabeth National Park recently recovered from an outbreak of anthrax among wildlife there (see Uganda battles deadly anthrax outbreak).

Justin Ecaat, a senior official at Uganda’s National Environment Management Authority, says such outbreaks show that African countries should be alert and have systems in place to monitor and control the movement of biological agents.