Feb. 16, 2001
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Biological weapons could target ethnic groups
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Jonathan Moreno

Biological weapons could target ethnic groups

By Fariss Samarrai

Could a terrorist group, or a secret scientific organization sponsored by a nation, develop a biological weapon so precise it could target only members of a particular ethnic group? Is this kind of ethnic biological warfare already being planned?

These are questions that biomedical ethicist Jonathan Moreno will discuss as an invited speaker next week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco. He will also address whether there are adequate international laws in place to deter this kind of research and to punish the people involved.

"There is emerging international concern about the possibilities of ethnic warfare using targeted biological weapons," says Moreno, director of U.Va.'s Center for Biomedical Ethics. "It is already known that the old apartheid government in South Africa was conducting research for the possible development of biological agents that could be used against the black population. They were particularly interested in seeking ways to sterilize women of color. There have also been allegations that Israel has shown an interest in these kinds of targeted bioweapons. The international community will need to strongly address such threats in the near future."

Moreno served as senior staff for two Clinton administration advisory commissions, one on radiation experiments conducted on humans following WWII, and another on research conducted on people with impaired decision-making abilities. As a result of this work, he published the book Undue Risk: Secret State Experiments on Humans, now available in paperback from Routledge.

Moreno is currently a member of the National Human Research Protections Advisory Committee, which advises the Secretary of Health and Human Services on ethical issues in clinical trials.

"It was during my commission work on human radiation experiments that I became aware of the potential threat from ethnically targeted biological weapons," he says. "I'm concerned that there are no international treaties specifically addressing this type of research."

Moreno says that the International Convention Against Genocide probably would cover both the use and research and development of ethnically targeted biological weapons. "But the international genetics community will surely not welcome this association of genetic science, however misused, with genocide and the specter of eugenics," he says.

The United States has signed a treaty prohibiting biological weapons research, but only involving offensive weapons. He says there are ways to conduct research for offensive purposes under the guise of defense or even as basic disease research.

"Biological weapons could be developed in a variety of forms," Moreno says. "Obvious examples include the use of the anthrax virus, which could have immediate, devastating effects on a population. But less obvious weapons are theoretically possible, such as genetically targeted agents that could effect the birthrates of a population, infant mortality rates, disease proclivity, and even crop production. It might take decades to realize an attack has even occurred. By that point a population of people might be seriously diminished.


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