Focus : Deadly secrets - Random inspections of factories are essential in the global fight against biological weapons. So why won't the US allow them?
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By Debora MacKenzie A BOMB explodes in central London. It does little obvious damage and is put down to a terrorist’s mistake. Then hundreds of people start showing up in clinics with bad chest colds, which quickly progress to pneumonia and fever. Patients start dying with lungs choked with fluid and the doctors alert the government. When the lab results come in, the government urges anyone with cold symptoms who was in London the day the bomb exploded to come in for antibiotics. Panic ensues, hospitals overflow and a young doctor leaks the real story to the papers: the disease is anthrax. A week later, the death toll has risen to tens of thousands. Such a scenario is credible as long as countries possess the means to make biological weapons. It explains why the US and Britain would rather go to war with Iraq than live with the possibility that Saddam Hussein could be hiding anthrax, botulism, aflatoxin and other lethal agents. It is also the reason that 140 countries—including Iraq—have ratified the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which prohibits the manufacture and acquisition of organisms or their toxins for military use. However, most governments agree that as it stands the convention is ineffective. Unlike the treaties that ban nuclear and chemical weapons, the BTWC provides no legal means to check if countries are complying. Treaty members are now trying to strengthen the convention to include a system of verification. Europe and many developing countries want UN inspectors to make random visits, at short notice, to any factory or lab—in any country—capable of producing lethal organisms. But the US government, under pressure from its drugs and biotechnology industries, rejects this idea. The companies fear that such visits would expose trade secrets. The issue will come to a head next month when an ad hoc working group of member countries meets in Geneva to continue negotiations on the BTWC. Double standards Supporters of random inspections point out that while the US is willing to go to war to back the UN’s right to inspect any sites it chooses in Iraq, it will not grant the UN the same right to inspect itself or the other members of the BTWC. Yet UN inspectors say that such inspections were crucial to discovering biological weapons in Iraq. Jack Melling of the Salk Institute Biologicals Development Center in Swiftwater, Pennsylvania, and former head of Britain’s Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research at Porton Down, Wiltshire, says the current crisis in Iraq “shows how badly we need a verification regime for biological weapons. If we had had one ten years ago, we would almost certainly have known there was a problem in Iraq before things got this bad.” Once Iraq had joined the BTWC after its defeat in 1991, the only legal way to find and destroy the biological weapons that its own generals had claimed it had was for the UN Security Council to set up a special commission, UNSCOM. Through its inspections over the past seven years, UNSCOM has tested many of the ways in which a verification regime would work for the BTWC. These include the compulsory declaration of all research and development involving biological weapons, and of any facilities that could be used to make them. An inspection team then compares this declaration with other evidence, such as government documents, trade records, interviews with scientists and visits to laboratories and factories. All signatories to the BTWC accept this approach in principle. The sticking point is how extensive the inspections should be. Everyone, including the biotechnology industry, agrees to what are known as “challenge” inspections. If there is “substantial and convincing evidence” of a breach—such as an unexplained outbreak of anthrax—a majority of treaty members can demand an inspection. But, says Barbara Rosenberg, chair of the biological weapons group of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), “challenge visits will never be frequent enough to be a sufficient deterrent. They require too much evidence and political risk for the country making the charge.” Stalemate Europe and most developing countries want random, “non-challenge” inspections. Officials would be able to visit any biological facility at short notice merely to check that everything was in order— although this would not solve the problem of secret facilities. Negotiations on the BTWC have been stuck in a deadlock for four years because the US and the world’s biotechnology and drugs industries will not agree to this (This Week, 8 March 1997, p 8). In late January, as the Iraqi crisis deepened, American President Bill Clinton announced he would support limited non-challenge inspections to clarify unclear declarations. But he explicitly rejected random visits. Yet in Iraq, UNSCOM has shown how effective these can be. Former UNSCOM chief Rolf Ekeus stressed in 1995 that random visits to set up a monitoring programme were crucial. “It was during the build-up of the monitoring structure that [UNSCOM was] able to detect Iraq’s concealment of its hitherto secret biological weapons programme,” he said. Visits to food processing plants and vaccine factories turned up undeclared fermentation equipment and laboratories with more production capacity than had been admitted. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents American drugs companies, maintains random inspections would “expose industry to the loss of its legitimate competitive trade secrets”. (It is also worried that an inspection for biological weapons would be disastrous for a company’s public relations.) But Lynn Klotz, who chairs the industry section of the FAS’s biological weapons group, says that inspection techniques exist that could protect legitimate secrets without hindering verification. DNA probes that screen for specific DNA sequences, possibly coupled with the polymerase chain reaction, as well as immunoassays, which use antibodies to reveal specific molecules, “are the leading candidates for use in a compliance regime”. Klotz says these techniques would need to be developed further before the BTWC could use them. But once they were ready, factory managers could supervise the tests at every step, protecting legitimate secrets without hindering the inspectors. For example, instead of taking live microorganisms out of the plant, a company would kill sampled organisms in front of inspectors and scramble the DNA enough to protect proprietary genes without disguising the species. The inspector could then run either PCR or immunoassay tests on the dead organisms with portable kits. The Chemical Weapons Treaty, which came into force last year, already allows random inspections, with “managed access” guidelines to protect industry. Klotz says these could be adapted for biological plants. PhRMA complains that random inspections would pose an unnecessary burden on industry. But Graham Pearson of Bradford University, former head of Britain’s biological defence programme at Porton Down, estimates that under the verification regime now being proposed,