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SCIENCE: Bioterror Fears Dim Biotech Potential

Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Feb 28 2006 (IPS) - Terrorists using biotechnology could create virulent new diseases that threaten millions of people and imperil future development of the technology, ethical experts warn.

World leaders attending the G8 meeting in July 2006 need to establish a global network to help resolve potential conflicts between bioterrorism control and biotechnology development, according to the report “DNA for Peace: Reconciling Biodevelopment and Biosecurity”.

The G8 is a powerful economic and political grouping comprising Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the United States, Japan, Italy and Canada.

“Cutting-edge technologies like biotechnology and nanotechnology potentially carry serious risks to the public,” said Peter Singer, director of the University of Toronto’s Joint Centre for Bioethics (JCB), the report’s co-author.

“If all we talk about is biosecurity and the risks, then we’ll create a huge wall that prevents the development of these new technologies,” Singer told IPS.

The report emphasises the potential for biotechnology to fight disease, hunger and poverty, especially in the developing world.

“Our biggest fear is the lost opportunities for the developing world should the public and countries overreact as the result of some bioterrorism incident,” said co-author Abdallah S. Daar, co-director of the Canadian Programme on Genomics and Global Health at the JCB.

This is a future threat, not an imminent one, Daar said in an interview. However, concern over such future threats could lead countries to impose bans or regimes of strict controls and regulations that could cripple the future development of these new technologies.

Biotech and nanotech research labs are rapidly spreading all over the world. Brazil alone has over 400 biotech research and development companies. Singapore and Malaysia are investing tens of millions of dollars in research. Vietnamese scientists recently announced they have successfully genetically engineered a type of insect-resistant rice.

Biotech is a collection of technologies that manipulate or engineer biological cells to manufacture proteins for current uses such as GM crops for agriculture and in the near future, new drugs, vaccines and diagnostic tools in health care.

Nanotech refers to the manipulation of non-biological and biological matter at the level of atoms and molecules. Nanotech has produced stain-resistant clothing and smoother-feeling cosmetics.

In 2004, Chinese scientists published more research papers on nanotech than U.S. scientists.

“Bioterror concerns are legitimate,” says Gigi Kwik Gronvall, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh’s Centre for Biosecurity

“It’s easier to create antibiotic-resistant bacteria than it is to develop a new antibiotic,” Kwik Gronvall told IPS.

The scientific, technical and cost barriers to biotech are falling, making it more accessible and simpler to do, she said. At same time, the technology is becoming more powerful and riskier.

“Accidents are going to become the big problem in the future,” she said.

The rapid proliferation of these technologies is very worrying, agreed Pat Mooney of the ETC Group, a Canadian-based NGO.

“Governments in Canada and the U.S. lack the ability to properly regulate biotech or nanotech on their own soils,” Mooney said in an interview.

Who will pay for the research and infrastructure to regulate these technologies in developing countries? he asked, adding, “I don’t think we can trust the private sector to do everything needed to protect the environment and human health.”

The vast proportion of biotech research is done by private companies that work in secret to protect their commercial interests.

That is a significant obstacle to the sharing of information needed to shed light on what scientists are doing to prevent accidents and misuse, said Singer. Companies are aware of the issue and are willing to participate in a global network that works toward creating a culture of good science and good regulations, he said.

“Countries can’t even manage nuclear materials, but biotechnology is very scary because it involves living material,” said Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute, a U.S. NGO working in developing countries.

Genetically engineered plants or viruses are hard to track and impossible to recall once they get into the environment, Mittal told IPS.

“The Biosafety Protocol already exists, why not use this to regulate biotech?” she said.

Officially called the Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, this international agreement regulates the transboundary movements of GE organisms. However, the U.S., Argentina and Canada, countries that produce 90 percent of GE crops, have not ratified the Protocol.

Attempts to promote biotech as something developing countries need is a sign of desperation by biotech proponents to the growing public backlash, Mittal said. “They keep promising better food and medicines, but they’ve never delivered.”

Mittal says India is the world’s third largest food producer, and hunger in that country is a problem of poverty not food availability. India doesn’t need new technologies to prevent diseases, just help and investments in better sanitation.

“Why don’t the authors of the JCB report, who are supposed to be ethicists, work on an ethical issue like social justice?” Mooney wonders. “They seem to be more interested in promoting liberation technology.”

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