Beyond Iraq's Bioweapons

Article excerpt

Iraq is getting most of the world's attention regarding weapons of mass destruction. But one such weapon - biological arms - is getting scrutiny that goes far beyond suspicions about one country's bombmaking program.

This week, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) launched a campaign to strengthen global diplomatic defenses against bioweapons. The ICRC hopes to pick up where efforts to bolster he existing Biological Weapons Convention have, sadly, left off.

That 1972 convention, plus a 1925 protocol banning poisonous gas and bacteriological weapons, have been legal barriers against proliferation. But their enforcement has lacked teeth. Particularly, it's been difficult to get countries (including, notably, the United States) to agree to on-site inspection procedures. Concerns about industrial secrets, patent protection, and sovereignty always surface.

The same problems could confront the ICRC's plans. But the group is moving ahead on the conviction that the rapid growth of biotechnology means the risks of such know-how being misused are multiplying.

Those risks include the reengineering of harmless microbes into dangerous ones, making existing biological agents like anthrax more difficult to counter, and designing agents to attack agricultural production. …