Germ warfare `could target ethnic groups'

GENETICALLY engineered biological weapons capable of targeting particular ethnic groups could become reality within 10 years, an expert panel warned yesterday.

Viruses and other micro- organisms tailored to detect the differences in the DNA of races could offer warmakers and terrorists of the future a new means to carry out "ethnic cleansing", said the panel convened by the British Medical Association (BMA).

Yet the scientific advances that would make such weapons possible will be a spin-off of two areas of medicine with potentially huge benefits. The first is the Human Genome Project, which aims to unravel the 100,000 or so genes in human DNA by 2003. The other is the nascent technology of gene therapy, which tries to repair defective genes in the body.

Launching a book entitled Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity, members of the panel insisted yesterday that they were not scaremongering. "We went into this being very sceptical, with a position that `It can't be done'," said Professor Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of health policy and research. "But then after examining what is going on we decided that it might be possible after all."

The idea of "genetic weapons", which the panel said are at present just a theoretical possibility, added urgency to the need to add verification procedures to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Though first signed in 1972 by the UK, US and Russia, and now having 140 signatory nations, the BWC differs from other weapons conventions in having no mechanisms for oversight, to ensure that signatories obey its rules.

Russia was among the countries that attempted to produce a genetically enhanced version of the anthrax virus during the Cold War. The Aum Shinrikyo religious terrorists in Japan also sought genetically to enhance bacteria they had acquired, but failed.