Gene Watch Conference

Biological Weapons and the New Genetics - Avoiding the Threat

Section 1: Biological Weapons and the New Genetics
a) Brief History: Dr. Brian Balmer – UCL (University College London)
b) The Potential for Abuse: Drs. Simon Whitby & Piers D. Millett
c) Response: Prof. Peter Biggs
d) Discussion chaired: Dr. Sue Mayer

Section 1a: The History of Biological Weapons - Dr. Brian Balmer

Dr. Balmer reviewed the use of biological weapons touching upon such as ancient practices of poisoning water supplies with dead bodies, catapulting the bodies of plague victims into besieged cities, the historically recent giving of blankets infected with smallpox to Indians in an uprising. It has not been therefore an occasional and ineffective method of warfare, but used with serious intent and devastating consequence. (Dr Balmer has a written a book entitled "Britain and Biological Warfare, Expert Advice and Science Policy, 1930-65, Palgrave, ISBN 0333754301)

The main change has been one in which energy and organisational effort has been put into developing a variety of such weapons. In the UK the 1940 saw the establishment of Porton Down, (now DERA, soon to be split up and have a new name) which had both and offensive retaliatory program, as well as a defensive program. In 1942 the US began an offensive development program which was terminated during the Nixon administration.

It is important to note that policy from the government is determined by the nature of the perceived threat.

In the 1930 the perceived threat was a disruption of public health, and the response a defence against that.

By the 1940’s the perceived threat was a biological warfare bomb, the policy was to provide retaliatory capability, and the research was directed to offensive and defensive weaponry with antipersonnel capacity.

In the 1950’s, the perceived threat was of large area aerosol sprays that would contaminate 200-mile square areas of land, the policy was to provide defensive cover, and the research was into threat assessment outdoor trials with non-pathological agents.

It is too simplistic to say that as science progresses the threat grows, and the assessment of biological weapons is never just a technical matter.


Section 1b: The Potential for abuse: Drs. Simon Whitby & Piers D. Millett

Drs Simon Whitby and Piers Millett presented a paper, which is available on the potential for the abuse of genetics in biological weapons. Briefly they surveyed five areas. The BWTC, Definitions on usage, the Official concerns vs. expert opinion, agents are areas of concern regarding humans, animals, and plants; and finally what is to be done.

Dr. Piers Millet dealt with the humans animals and plants, illustrated the wider threat with reference to three areas of vulnerability. These were a) Human bio-regulators; b) viral vectors and anti-animal biological weapons; and c) plants.
What is the purpose of attacking animals and plants. Historically this was aimed large scale economic and social disruption and this would remain the aim if development of bio-weapons cannot be prevented in the future. Many animal diseases can infect humans and this is another route to attach people. There is also the possibility of covert economic attacks on farm animals and crops as a means of weakening a state before hostilities.

Human bio-regulators.

Which control mood, body temperature, heart rate consciousness, sleep or emotions and so on. Although the particular peptides that deal with these are not particularly stable, and therefore not storable as a viable bio-weapon. The understanding of genetics and the active sites that these peptides link to make possible the generation of substitute chemicals that will active these sites and thus produce the effect. They make an attractive target for development because
1. very low threshold for activation,
2. very difficult to detect,
3. easily altered, and
4. can be agonists (to increase a function) or antagonists (to decrease a function).
Entholins are a particular area of interest because of their involvement in heart failure. Robust agonists and antagonists have been developed in this area. There is military concern that this knowledge could be put to malign use.

Viral vectors and anti-animal Biological Weapons

It is proposed to ban work on a range of viruses known to cause specific diseases. The consequence of the recent Foot and Mouth outbreak in the UK reinforces the fact that no enhancement of these viruses is needed. Viruses however are used in the delivery of genetic material in somatic gene therapy and various cancer treatments. These viruses belong to classes which cause diseases in plants and animals and form a potential base of vectors for delivery of biological effects to the full range of domesticated animals. Apart from infectious possibilities genetic processes could have as a secondary effect creation auto-immune response if the first intent failed.


The Irish Potato famine in 1840’s, and the more recent Bengal famine in 1943 caused by failure of the rice crop, show how devastating an attack on a staple food supply could be. Natural crop infection is blamed for 12% of existing crop loss. During the twenty five years of its offensive bio-weapons programme the US stockpiled in war ready form many hardy fungal pathogens known to attack crops. The USSR and also more recently Iraq both worked on similar crop weapons. There are clear suggestions in literature that process used within genome studies could be used for malign purposes. Also vulnerability to bio attack as well as natural pathogens increases as crops with identical genome composition become more widespread. Clear knowledge of plant, animal and human genomes allows the development of simple lethal agents that disrupt the whole biological process.


There is a vast increase in the formal knowledge about the structure and operation of human, animal and plant bio-chemistry. There are signs that this is being used in the development of militarily significant biological weapons with dangers this presents for humanity. It is therefore important to strengthen the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention through the agreement, and implementation of a verification Protocol.

Section 1c. - Response - Professor Peter Biggs.

In running through the concerns highlighted by Drs Whitby and Millett, Prof. Biggs pointed out the difficulties of each area highlighted becoming a major bio-weapons threat. For example the species specific nature of retroviruses. We must not loose sight of the benefits because of the potential hazards from the misapplication of knowledge. There is no evidence that GM weapons would be more effective that naturally occurring viruses, and there is costly research with its evident dangers of discovery inherent in their discovery and production. The danger from the new application of knowledge of human biochemistry remains.

In the discussion some ideas were usefully highlighted.

In response to concerns about the individual responsibility of scientists, open discussion is important. In a closed environment the justification for continuing research becomes unusual. E.g. within the closed regime of a bio-weapons research facility the argument came that people would prefer to be bombed by biological weapons. Conventional weapons destroyed house and home, brought injury suffering and grief to the victims who might still then die from consequent infection. The biological weapon, it was argued, would be preferred because it avoids all the drawn out and unnecessary suffering. (!)