Students in germ weapons alert

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The Independent Online
HUNDREDS of students at British universities from countries developing biological weapons face security service vetting.

The Government intends to monitor overseas postgraduate students and their science courses to try to prevent the transfer of 'intangible technology' to countries that might be developing nuclear, chemical or biological weapons.

At least one university has been approached by the Ministry of Defence about two post-graduate students from Middle Eastern countries studying veterinary medicine. The Government fears that they could apply their knowledge to develop biological weapons.

One student had applied to join an innocuous course on animal parasitology, but switched on arrival to one where he would learn to handle and manipulate dangerous microbes that could cause human and animal disease.

The Government is concerned by evidence that 10 countries have programmes to develop biological weapons - including diseases such as anthrax, botulism and other more exotic bacteria and viruses. Making and stockpiling biological weapons was outlawed by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention in 1972.

The Foreign Office refuses to name the countries for fear of upsetting diplomatic relations. However inquiries by the Independent have established that the countries are: China, Cuba, India, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, North Korea, Russia and Syria.

UN inspections after the Gulf war showed that Iraq was conducting research towards a biological weapons capability, and President Boris Yeltsin has said that the Soviet Union developed biological weapons even after signing the convention.

According to some observers, Cuba's programme of biological research might be defensive - rather as Britain continues to make pathogens for defensive research.

Graham Pearson, director of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment at Porton Down, said that there were about 150 to 200 postgraduate students from the six countries of highest concern in regard to biological weapons.

'I was surprised by the size of the numbers. There is something to be addressed there,' Dr Pearson told a seminar on biological weapons at the Foreign Office last week. However, Dr Pearson emphasised that he was not alleging that all such students came to the UK with ulterior motives.

University scientists at the seminar complained about the Government's lack of candour in explaining why the proliferation of biological weapons had suddenly become such a problem.

There is also confusion over the Government's attitude to the countries with weapons of mass destruction because while it claims that it is concerned about only 10 countries, its published information lists 46 suspect countries - including most non- OECD nations of any scientific or industrial importance.

Other scientists point out that for the past decade the Government has been encouraging universities to take more foreign students - especially from oil-rich Middle Eastern countries because those were the only ones who could readily afford the tuition fees. 'Libya pays particularly well,' one academic noted.

Others pointed out that, in many of the biological sciences, once a researcher had published results in the open literature, he was duty bound to send samples of his materials, including pathogenic organisms, to other scientists so that they could verify and extend the published work.