Scientists' warning on biological weapons

The threat of a terrorist attack using biological weapons is serious enough for Britain to begin simulation exercises to ensure that its emergency services can counter the dangers, an expert committee has concluded.

The threat of a terrorist attack using biological weapons is serious enough for Britain to begin simulation exercises to ensure that its emergency services can counter the dangers, an expert committee has concluded.

A Royal Society working group of scientists whose expertise covers micro-organisms and public health has found that ignoring the threat of a biological weapons attack by terrorists would be irresponsible.

The scientists have calledfor carefully planned counter -measures with key medical staff being trained to recognise pathogenic micro-organisms, such as bubonic plague, which they would not normally come across in this country, says the working group's report, published yesterday.

The Government should amass stockpiles of vaccines and other material needed as counter-measures and an action plan is needed to reduce public panic by providing reliable information to the media. "Mercifully, the scale of effectiveness of biological weapons [BW] against human populations in war and by terrorist attack has not been proven in practice," the report says. "While it would be irresponsible to be complacent about the possible effects of BW, it would also seem prudent not to overestimate them."

The committee, chaired by Harry Smith, emeritus professor of microbiology at Birming-ham University, recommends the establishment of a panel of scientists drawn from government and the independent sector, who can provide accurate and balanced information on the changing risks of a BW attack.

"Collaboration plans should be set up between the police, public health authorities, the clinical and hospital services, the intelligence agencies and the military. The authorities who would co-ordinate the local and national responses should be made clear. These plans should be tested in simulated attacks," the report says.

Sir Joseph Smith, former director of the Government's Public Health Laboratory Service and a member of the working group, said the existing system for dealing with natural outbreaks of infectious disease should be strengthened to cope with any BW threat.

"Plans should be based on the present arrangements for dealing with naturally occurring outbreaks of infection, and key medical and laboratory staff should be trained to recognise the diseases that would be caused by biological weapons," Sir Joseph said. "The advantages of a biological weapons attack for terrorists is that it frightens people. We are regrettably used to explosions. Biological weapons are easy to use covertly and you can grow simple germs on a kitchen scale."

The Royal Society, which began its investigation into biological weapons more than a year ago, said Britain and other countries should seek to tighten the international 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, which outlaws the development, testing, manufacture and stockpiling of biological weapons by governments. Negotiations will begin in Geneva on Monday with the aim of improving the Convention's verification procedures.

Professor Harry Smith said that although biological weap-ons were potentially a serious threat, it would be counterproductive to exaggerate the danger. "Observations from natural infectious disease indicate that biological weapons are unlikely to have as devastating an effect on human populations as nuclear weapons," he said.

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