Wars of the future could be fought with microbes rather than bombs and missiles, a leading scientist warned a British conference yesterday.
Biological weapons pose a real and growing threat which nations ignore at their peril, said Sir William Stewart, a former chief scientific adviser to the Government.
But he warned that microbiology, essential to combat such weapons, was becoming a "Cinderella subject" in Britain, where it was losing the battle for research resources.
Sir William, president of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, told fellow scientists: "There are those who say the First World War was chemical, the Second World War was nuclear, and that the third world war God forbid will be biological.
"Information on the potential use of biological agents is widely available in the published literature. The offensive use of biological weapons is forbidden by international convention. Yet, the published literature lists around 30 conventional microbes as potential BW [biological warfare] agents."
Sir William's warning came in his presidential address to this year's British Association Festival of Science at Glasgow University. He argued that the foot-and-mouth epidemic should be seen as a salutary lesson even though it did not harm humans.
"We only have to look at the current foot-and-mouth episode to see what can go wrong if we are not properly prepared and when a bug is not adequately contained," he said. A nation unprepared for foot-and-mouth was poorly equipped to defend itself against a military biological attack, he added.
The Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is known to have stockpiled anthrax and has used biological weapons against Kurds in his own country.
"If nuclear weapons and space technology dominate the global defence thinking, what is left for the smaller and rogue nations without them? Are we naive enough to believe that the recent advances in microbiology and genomic biology will be restricted to the civil field?" Sir William asked. Apart from their potential use as weapons, the threat from bacteria and viruses was growing on a global scale, he warned. Drug resistant "superbugs" were emerging that were impervious to most antibiotics; serious infections are rife in hospitals; and sexually transmitted diseases were on the increase, he said. Bacteria and viruses were now known to have a wider role in many diseases, such as cancer, stomach ulcers and heart disease, he said.
Sir William criticised the scientific establishment for being out of touch with the public on issues such as genetic modification, BSE, mobile phones and the MMR vaccine.
"Scientists have to be careful and consider the full implications of what they are seeking to achieve," he said. "The problem with some clever people is that they find cleverer ways of being stupid."
About 300 speakers and 5,000 members of the public are expected to attend the week-long science festival, which this year marks the organisation's 170th birthday.
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