Jan van Aken has worked for nearly 20 years to analyse and expose the threat of genetic engineering to human relations, health and the environment. He is a botanist by training, with a PhD in cell biology from the Hamburg University. After several years of research on the environmental risks of genetically engineered plants, he worked from 1997-2001 as a campaigner and scientific advisor for the environmental group Greenpeace and other non-governmental organisations. In 1999, he co-founded the Sunshine Project, an international non-profit organisation working to strengthen the norm against biological weapons. He is currently director of the German office of the Sunshine Project and part time research scientist in the department for technology assessment of the Hamburg University (FSP BIOGUM), where he looks into ethical, social and political implications of pharmacogenetics.
Bioweapons and genetic engineering: The dual-use problem in the biomedical sciences
The possible military abuse of new biomedical methods and achievements has been a concern for decades. Genetic engineering techniques have been used in past offensive biowarfare programmes to increase the military efficiency of human pathogens(1). A broad range of biomedical disciplines – from pharmacology and drug delivery to human and microbial genome sequencing – is increasingly providing knowledge which may easily be abused by a bioterrorist group or state(2). This fear has only recently been fuelled by the generation of infectious poliovirus from scratch in the laboratory, through the chemical synthesis of poliovirus cDNA(3).
But from an arms control perspective, an even more worrying development is the adoption of new kinds of biological weapons by western democracies. So called non-lethal biological weapons such as material degrading microbes or psychoactive crowd control substances are currently under development in the USA, despite their prohibition by international arms control treaties4. The new technologies provided by modern biotechnology prompted military scientists to look into completely new types of biological weapon systems that have hitherto not been possible.
In the presentation, examples for past, current and putative future military applications of biotechnology will be given, to highlight the broad spectrum of possibilities and affected research areas. The biomedical scientists must face their obligation to prevent military abuse of their work - not only by terrorist groups or foreign countries, but also by their own governments. International legally binding measures to enhance biosafety and biosecurity are urgently needed5. The international norm against biological weapons successfully deterred most States in the past decades from developing offensive biowarfare programs, but today the revolution in biotechnology is threatening to trigger a new biological arms race.
- See for example Pomerantsev AP. Staritsin NA. Mockov YV. Marinin LI. (1997) Expression of cereolysine ab genes in Bacillus anthracis vaccine strain ensures protection against experimental hemolytic anthrax infection. Vaccine 15:1846-1850.
- Fraser CM, Dando MR (2001) Genomics and future biological weapons: the need for preventive action by the biomedical community. Nature Genetics 29:253-256.
- Cello J, Paul AV, Wimmer E (2002) Chemical synthesis of poliovirus cDNA: Generation of infectious virus in the absence of natural template. Science, published online on July 11, 2002.
- For extensive background information and original documents from US military services see www.sunshine-project.org.
- Barletta M, Sands A, Tucker JB (2002) Keeping track of anthrax: the case for a biosecurity convention. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May/June 2002, p. 57.