Bioterror and biosafety

October 19th, 2001

By Vandana Shiva

The reports of anthrax cases in Florida and New York have put a renewed focus on bioterror—the risks and hazards posed by biological agents. From the U.S. to India, Governments are on high alert. Even the World Health Organisation has issued warnings. Americans and Europeans have been stockpiling gas masks and antibiotics, and images of policemen and investigators in biohazard suits have started to make front-page appearances in newspapers and magazines.
The panic and fear being spread about biohazards in the post-September 11 period is so different from the complacency earlier, even though the threat to public health and the environment from hazardous biological agents is not new. If we have to respond adequately and consistently to bioterror, we need to take two basic issues into account. Firstly, infective biological agents cause disease and kill, irrespective of who spreads them and how they spread. The current paranoia arises from the fear that they could get into terrorist hands.
However, terrorists can get them because they are around. And they pose hazards even if they are not in terrorist hands. As Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic, said in his opening remarks of Forum 2000 in Prague on 14th October, “Bin Laden did not invent bacterial agents”. They were invented in defence or corporate labs. Anthrax has been part of the ascend of biological warfare of the very states which are today worried about bioterrorism. And genetic engineering of biological organisms, both for warfare and food and agriculture, is creating new biohazards, both intended and unintended. Secondly, it is fully recognised that stronger public health systems is the only response to bioterrorism. However, precisely at a time when public health reports are needed most, they are being dismantled under privatisation and trade liberalisation pressures. Bioterrorism should help governments recognise that we desperately need strong biosafety regulation and public health systems.
The global citizens movement and the movement of concerned scientists for biosafety have been alerting Governments to the ecological and health risks of genetic engineering and therefore the imperative to test, assess and regulate the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment. This basic conflict over the need to assess GMOs for biohazards was at the heart of negotiations that stretched over a decade under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and were finally concluded in February 2000 in Montreal on the Protocol on Biosafety.
There are two major concerns for potential risks of biohazards from GMOs. Firstly, the vectors used for introducing genes from one organism to another to make a GMO are highly infectious and virulent biological agents. It is, in fact, their infectious nature which makes them useful as vectors to introduce alien genes into biological organisms. The risks of the use of virulent vectors for engineering novel life forms have not been assessed. And their use for bioterrorism becomes easier as they spread commercially around the world.
Secondly, since GMOs are novel organisms which have not existed in nature, their impact on the environment and on human health is not known. Ignorance of the impact is being treated as proof of safety, a totally unscientific approach. This has been called a “don't look, don't see” approach to biosafety.
Biowarfare or bioterrorism is the deliberate use of living organisms to kill people. When economic policies based on trade liberalisation and globalisation deliberately spread fatal and infectious diseases such as AIDS, TB and malaria, by dismantling health and medical systems, they too become instruments of bioterror. This is the way citizens groups have organised worldwide against the TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement and GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) of the WTO. TRIPS imposes patents and monopolies on drugs, taking essential medicines beyond the reach of the poor.
For example, AIDS medicine, which costs $200 without patents, costs $20,000 with patents. TRIPS and patents on medicines become recipes for spreading disease and death because they take cure beyond people’s reach. Similarly, privatisation of health systems as imposed by the World Bank under SAPS (Structural Adjustment Programmes) and also proposed in GATS, spreads infectious diseases because low cost, decentralised public health systems are withdrawn and dismantled. These are also forms of bioterror. They are different from the acts of terrorists only because they are perpetrated by the powerful, not the marginalised and the excluded and they are committed for the fanaticism of the free market ideology, not fundamentalist religious ideologies. But in impact they are the same. They kill innocent people and species by spreading disease.
Stopping the spread of bioterror at all these levels requires stopping the proliferation of technologies which create potentially hazardous biological organisms. It also requires stopping the proliferation of economic and trade policies which are crippling public health systems, spreading infectious diseases and leaving societies more vulnerable to bioterrorism.
Vandana Shiva is Director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, New Delhi.

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