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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 14, March 27, 2010

Biological Warfare and Genetic Engineering

Saturday 27 March 2010, by Bharat Dogra


Biological warfare is known to be one of the most destructive yet secretive forms of warfare. In fact its strength derives to a large extent from the fact that it can unleash so much damage without the identity of a specific attack, not to mention the attacker, becoming clear at all. Biological warfare (also called germ-warfare) can be used to spread disease among human beings or destroy crops on a large scale. Protection against such an attack is extremely difficult, specially in the case of a surprise attack.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “The insidious effects of many chemical and biological warfare agents make them suited to sabotage, for not only do they cause widespread damage, but their delayed effects may also enable the saboteur to escape detection.”

US expert Katheleen C. Bailey has stated: “Although biological warfare and toxin warfare were historically viewed as less practical weapons because of technical problems in production and effective delivery, tremendous technology advances such as genetic engineering and development of stabilisers have made these weapons relatively easy to manufacture and deliver effectively. Because these weapons are inexpensive and comparatively easy to produce, an increasing number of nations may pursue them.”

Speaking further about the threats posed by biological weapons, she says: “A bacteria or virus used as a weapon could spread well beyond its intended victims, causing an epidemic worldwide. The pathogen could mutate, becoming even more deadly and resistant to treatment or prevention.”

The use of biological and toxin weapons was outlawed by the 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Nevertheless biological warfare research continued in several countries, specially the two superpowers, that is, the USA USSR. Russian President Boris Yelstin admitted in 1992 that an epidemic of anthrax in Ural mountains in 1979 was caused by an accident at a biological warfare production plant.

As for biological warfare research in the USA, the Third World Guide 1991-92 has reported: “Early in the Reagan Administration, which entered office in 1981, a systematic campaign was initiated to develop military capacity based on advances in the biomedical and biotechnology, such as genetic engineering. These efforts included attempts to undermine the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, sharply increasing expen-ditures for biological weapons research and development, active recruitment of University scientists into Department of Defence, and formal testimony before the US Congress in 1986 urging the development of military capacity in biotechnology.”

Senior American journalist William Blum has reported: “In 1956 and 1958, declassified documents have revealed that the US army loosed swarms of specially bred mosquitoes in Georgia and Florida to see whether disease carrying insects could be weapons in a biological war. The mosquitoes bred for the tests were of Aedes Aegypti type, the precise carrier of dengue fever as well as other diseases. In 1967, it was reported by Science magazine that at the US Government Centre in Fort Detrick, Maryland, dengue fever was amongst those diseases that are at least the object of considerable research and that appear to be among those regarded as potential biological warfare agents.”

Cuba protested time and again against the possible involvement of chemical and biological warfare agents in the destruction of its crops, outbreak of African swine and dengue fever but such is the nature of biological warfare that conclusive evidence is difficult to get.

As biological warfare research was continued by the big powers, one of the main problems they faced was in conducting field tests and other experiments which could prove dangerous for their own people. This problem was solved to some extent by shifting these experiments to developing countries in the garb of development and health research.

Disturbing evidence of several such research projects in India was made available in 1975 in the 167th report of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament titled ‘Foreign Participation or Collaboration in Research Products in India’, and in its follow up report in 1976. These reports indicted several such projects such as a genetic control of mosquitoes unit (GCMU) project, a microbial pesticide project and some other projects.

An article published in New Scientist said: “If one were intending a yellow fever attack on India, this information collected by the GCMU would be very useful.”


A widely circulated magazine in India, The Week, alleged in two cover stories (October 9, 1994 and July 23, 1995) that the outbreak of pneumonic plague in Surat was the result of biological warfare experiments conducted by the USA. The Week said that several suspicious circumstances led it to suspect from the outset that the microbe was not a natural plague bacterium but one mutated in some germ-warfare lab. The magazine said in its July 23 issue, the laboratories which examined the microbe strains collected from Surat have reported that they are different from all known natural strains of the plague germ, Yersinia pestis. The Week said that US scientists have been developing a germ detector device known as BIDS (Biological Integrated Detection System). This required field tests some of which, the Week said, may have been conducted in Surat.

Summarising the reason why suspicions persist, a news report released by the Press Trust of India said: “While the final report of the Ramalingaswami Committee on Surat plague is yet to be released, there is increasing suspicion among scientists that the strain of Yersinia Pestis, Which caused the outbreak, was genetically engineered. Basis for this suspicion is a test report from the US Centre for Disease Control at Fort Collins in Colarado that the Surat strain is unique and not related to any known stain of the plague bacillus.”

Attention has also been drawn to the biological warfare implications of what has been called the ‘terminator technology’. In widely discussed paper (published in the Ecologist, September/October 1998) Ricarda A. Steinbrecker (Science Director of the Genetics Forum UK) and Pat Roy Mooney (widely acclaimed winner of the Right to Livelihood Award) summarise the implications of this most controversial use of generic engineering:

“On March 3rd 1998 the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and a little-known cotton-seed enterprise called Delta and Pine Land Company, acquired US patent 5,723,765—or the Technology Protection System (TPS). Within days, the rest of the world knew TPS as Terminator Technology. Its declared goal is to promulgate plants that will produce self terminating offspring-suicide seeds. Terminator Technology epitomises what the genetic engineering of food crops is all about and gives an insight into the driving forces behind the corporate campaign to control and own life.

“The Terminator also portends a hidden dark side. As a Trojan Horse for other transgenic traits, the technology might also be used to switch any trait off or on. At least in theory, the technology points to the possibility that crop diseases could be triggered by seed exports that would not have to “kick in” immediately-or not until activated by specific chemicals or conditions. This form of biological warfare on people’s food and economics is becoming a hot topic in military and security circles.”

Several eminent scientists comprising the Independent Science Panel have also clearly indicated the biological warfare potential of genetic engineering. The ISP writes: “By far the most insidious dangers of genetic engineering are inherent to the process itself, which greatly enhances the scope and probability of horizontal gene transfer and recombination, the main route to creating viruses and bacteria that cause disease epidemics. This was highlighted, in 2001, by the ‘accidental’ creation of a killer mouse virus in the course of an apparently innocent genetic engineering experiment. Newer techni-ques, such as DNA shuffling, are allowing geneti-cists to create in a matter of minutes in the laboratory millions of recombinant viruses that have never existed in billions of years of evolution. Disease-causing viruses and bacteria and their genetic material are the predominant materials and tools for genetic engineering, as much as for the intentional creation of bio-weapons.”

As genetic engineering MNCs with a past record of highly unethical activities are now being given a prominent role in India’s agriculture, a timely warning needs to be given regarding the security implications of this.

The author is currently a Fellow at the Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi.

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