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Could biotech be harnessed for bioterror?

A European policy research warns that biotechnology research used to find new cures for disease could instead be harnessed for use as a weapon of terror.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Biotechnology research used to find new cures for disease could instead be harnessed for use as a weapon of terror, a prominent European think tank warned.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in its annual yearbook, said that biotechnology, including advancements in mapping the human genome, could result in new biological weapons that could cause harm to a specific ethnic group or a large swath of a country’s population.

“The free access to genetic sequence data for the human genome and a large number of other genomes, including for pathogenic microorganisms, is a great scientific resource, but it could pose a significant threat if misused,” said the report, which was unveiled in Stockholm Tuesday.

Terrorist applications
Researcher Richard Guthrie said developments in mapping the human genome, which could lead to improved medicines and vaccines for heart and neurological problems, also could be used by terrorists.

“There have been numerous claims that al-Qaida and the Taliban have demonstrated an interest in acquiring and using biological weapons, but such reports are ambiguous,” the report’s author, Roger Roffey, wrote.

Experts said the risk is there.

Last year, the National Research Council called for more oversight over biotechnology, in part to permit the continued study cutting-edge medicine and to keep developments in the academic and medical realm.

The issue isn’t farfetched, said Barbara Rosenberg, chair of the Scientists Working Group on Biological and Chemical Weapons at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation.

Genetic ethnic cleansing
She said research of the human genome, and mapping it extensively, could result in one group being able to develop a pathogen that would target a specific ethnic group.

“Even though no populations are pure, there are groups that share a relative number of certain genes that are missing in other people,” she told The Associated Press by telephone.

“There could be some selective use. It wouldn’t be perfect, but even if it only attacked a fairly small percentage of the population it could still cause major disruption in a society.”

While the process may seem like something out of a science fiction story, Rosenberg said that’s not the case anymore.

“We’re learning so much about the genetic differences between people and understanding what that those differences mean at a molecular level,” she said. “And that’s what you need to know if you’re going to try and change pathogens.”