US Wants a Tougher Biological Arms Ban Some 15 Nations May Be Building Microbe Arsenals

Article excerpt

The United States is looking to put teeth into a global biological warfare ban. It is convinced that Iran and other states are secretly working to add lethal microbes to their military arsenals.

The initiative to bolster the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) moved into high gear after the Clinton administration won Senate approval in April of a global chemical weapons ban, over fierce GOP objections.

The new effort reflects mounting US concern over the spread of advanced biotechnologies that can be diverted from legitimate civilian uses to illicit biological warfare programs. Some officials are also frustrated by the reluctance of some countries, such as France, Germany and Switzerland, to curb sales of "dual-use" technologies to Iran and other states the US suspects of creating biological weaponry. The relative low cost and ease of secretly producing huge amounts of lethal bacteria, viruses, or other microbes have convinced the administration that such weapons are major post-cold-war threats to US security. "You can put one of these things {bio labs} in your kitchen practically and make enough of whatever to wipe out a city," says a US official, who notes that directions for making crude biological weapons are available on the Internet. But building on the success of the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) vote will not be easy. Not only will administration officials have to fight another bruising battle with Republican hard-liners who put little faith in multilateral arms control, but they will first have to iron out disputes among themselves over how far to push enforcement of the BWC. "There are a number of issues ... over which there are differences of opinion," notes a senior administration official involved in the policy review. Furthermore, in devising ways of strengthening adherence to the BWC, US officials will have to satisfy the reservations of the politically powerful US pharmaceutical industry. It worries that overly intrusive enforcement of the accord could put proprietary secrets worth billions of dollars at risk. "This has to be done in such a way that industry's rights are protected," says an industry source knowledgeable about the new effort. Unlike other arms control accords, the BWC was enacted without any legally binding mechanisms to ensure that its 136 member states adhere to a ban on the production, storage, and use of microorganisms for military purposes. …