Comments from GeneWatch UK
November 30th 2001
GeneWatch UK fully shares the desire of the UK Government to prevent bioterrorism and has worked actively to help reduce the threat of biological weapons. In May 2001, GeneWatch organised a conference to consider the issues of the new genetic technologies and biological weapons and how to reduce the threat. GeneWatch has also published a series of newsletters on the subject which we distribute widely. Therefore, these comments are made from the perspective of a shared goal, but we question whether the correct approach is being taken.
Our comments cover three areas:
* questioning whether the information on the GMOs Contained Use (CU) public register is, in fact, dangerous knowledge from the bioterrorism perspective and suggesting that other actions (such as increased security) would reduce the threat more effectively;
* suggesting that the secrecy involved will conflict with international efforts to prevent the development of biological weapons under the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention which rely upon, inter alia, declarations of facilities with high level containment;
* arguing that there will be damage to the broader public interest through the lack of scrutiny and questioning of the application of genetic modification in laboratories, including the military’s interest.
1. Dangerous knowledge?
The presumption behind the proposed emergency amendment to the CU regulations is that information about where the genetic modification of potential biological weapons (BW) pathogens is taking place would be used by bioterrorists to gain access to the organisms. This rests upon a belief that the public register is among the most obvious and easy sources of information about work on dangerous pathogens in the UK. In GeneWatch’s experience, knowledge of the existence of the public register is extremely limited and people are much more likely to go to the more obvious sources of information which include:
* publications in the scientific literature
* the internet
* the press and media
* historical information in all these areas
These sources are all likely to contain information on location, researchers names (making contact easier) and the type of work being conducted. It is inconceivable that secrecy will be able to be extended to cover all these areas and, therefore, excluding this information from the GMO Contained Use public register will serve no effective purpose. Furthermore, it is clear that pathogens do not have to be genetically modified to be potential biological weapons (although there is potential to make organisms more dangerous). There is no evidence that the anthrax bacteria used in the US attack had been modified. Therefore, taking GMOs as a special case is not rational in this context and seems to represent no more than an ill conceived "knee jerk" reaction.
GeneWatch believes that rather than take an approach based on secrecy in relation to the Contained Use of GMOs, the Government should introduce regulations which require improved security on the access to ALL potentially harmful pathogens. This could include the use of logs of stocks and records of the use of pathogens, passwords or other security on access points and so on. In fact, the Government is acting negligently if it does not insist on steps like this.
1. Conflicting with international measures to reduce the threat of biological weapons production
The UK is a signatory to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) and has been active in trying to bring improvements to the BWC which are based on the principle of "trust and verify". To avoid biological weapons proliferation, it is essential that there is confidence built between States that biological weapons are not being developed and that any work with potential biological warfare agents is for peaceful purposes (such as vaccine development). To this end, parties to the BWC (including the UK) prepare annual "Confidence Building Returns" which include details of high level containment facilities, their location and general details of the work that is going on. The UK’s 1998 return even included a map of the location of the DERA’s Chemical and Biological Defence establishment at Porton Down.
The UK has been exemplary in this respect in the past and in its efforts to negotiate a BWC Protocol on compliance and verification (which sadly failed earlier this year). GeneWatch is concerned that the introduction of the secrecy measures contained in the draft emergency regulations represent (or may be seen to represent) a retreat from the UK’s commitment to biological weapons control.
GeneWatch believes that the emergency regulations have not taken into account the international dimensions of biological weapons control. If introduced, they could inadvertently create suspicion internationally that the UK is now interested in biological weapons development and is using prevention of bioterrorism as an excuse to conceal them. A biological arms race could then be encouraged and result in exactly the opposite effect intended.
3. Damage to the public interest
Across all areas of the use of genetic modification there is a clear public interest justification for the provision of information. In the case of the modification of dangerous pathogens this is even important more because public scrutiny is needed to ensure unnecessarily dangerous experiments are not taking place and to question the justification for certain areas of study. For example, the public may reasonably wish to scrutinise the military’s interest in genetic modification and this is an important safeguard against its abuse.
GeneWatch believes that the restriction of information available in the public register will reduce public scrutiny of potentially dangerous and unjustified experiments and harm biosecurity.
The Mill House
Derbyshire SK17 8LN
Ph: 01298 871898
Fax: 01298 872531 Visit the GeneWatch UK web site at: www.genewatch.org