Digging for evidence, U.N. inspectors attempt to verify Iraq's claims that it destroyed bio-warfare agents.
Can this monster be controlled?
As Saddam Hussein has figured out, bio-weapons are the poor guy's atomic bomb. The World Health Organization estimates that a single anthrax attack could kill 95,000 and incapacitate 125,000. Although bio-weapons can be tricky, since you don't want to kill your own troops, it doesn't require too much sophistication to make a crude one.
Compared to nuclear weapons, biological warfare "technology is less challenging, more accessible, and no really high-tech equipment is needed," says Gary Milhollin, director of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control in Washington, a long-time critic of lax restrictions on military technologies. (Although Milhollin is a law professor on leave from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the project is not affiliated with the university.)
In fact, you don't even have to be a government to play this game: The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, which used nerve gas in a deadly March, 1995, subway attack in Tokyo, also experimented with biological weapons, and reportedly tried to collect Ebola virus from Zaire in 1992.
The basic control framework is the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which has been signed by 157 states, including the United States, the Soviet Union, and Iraq, and went into effect in 1975. The treaty bans stockpiling and using biological weapons. It also prohibits offensive research but permits defensive research. (You can skip to some intriguing defensive developments.) After concluding that the weapons were so dangerous as to be useless, the United States decided to destroy all its biological weapons in 1969, even before the treaty was signed.
An un-rare weapon
The key problem with the biological weapons convention is the lack of teeth. "They need to set up a verification regime, like arms control agreements for chemical and nuclear weapons have now," says Raymond Zilinskas, an associate professor at the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute. He suggests that biological weapons inspectors need to make the kind of unannounced inspections that are a mainstay of nuclear and chemical weapons inspectors.
Zilinskas, who participated in two United Nations biological weapons inspections in Iraq, suggests these improvements in international arms-control activities:
|Investigating allegations of biological weapons use.|
|Clarifying the cause of suspicious disease outbreaks.|
|Increasing cooperation among international agencies.|
|Improving peaceful cooperation between scientists to make their activities more "transparent."|
|Looking for bio-weapons specialists from the former Soviet Union or Iraq who disappear, stop publishing, or suddenly get rich.|
|Controlling international trade in biological equipment useful for military and civilian purposes.|
When assessing a nation's biological weapons capacity, it's important to remember that the weapons may be harder to deliver than to produce. "Even the Iraqis, working with a full blast effort, have not been able to get that right," says Zilinskas. "You can take a five-pound bag and say this is enough anthrax to kill the whole world. The big trick is how you deliver it to the target population."
Still, the basics of producing pathogens is not exactly rocket science. If Iraq could conceal a large biological weapons program while under international inspection, smaller efforts should be easier to conceal. "Intelligence will tell you if somebody's building a lab with a clean room and heavy security," says Richie. "But if there's a guy who wants to build them in a small lab in an outpost, that's very difficult to detect."
Want to hear how medicine can take advantage of biological weapons?
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