Bring on the mind control, please

You don’t expect to find anything funny in a book with a title like this: Breeding Bio Insecurity: How US Biodefense is Exporting Fear, Globalizing Risk and Making Us All Less Secure (Chicago, 2009). In the London Review of Books Thomas Jones writes that “Lynn Klotz and Edward Sylvester make a compelling case for a radical and immediate change in America”s biosecurity policy.”  Foreign Affairs says “the authors make a plausible and disturbing case.” Other reviewers have called it “forceful and provocative,” even “indispensable.”

The book argues that the conditions of research in bioweapons and biosecurity pose a greater risk to the health and security of Americans than do bioterrorist attacks, but that this risk can be countered and defeated with greater efforts against infectious diseases and greater international oversight and transparency. It also raises the question about the moral and legal issues around the billions spent since 9/11 on R&D into bioweapons counter-measures like antibiotics, antivirals, antidotes and vaccines. Testing them clearly requires ready availability of the bioweapons agents themselves, something that contravenes the Biological Weapons Convention, which bans the development, production, and stockpiling of microbial or other biological agents or toxins.

Ever since Hannibal’s forces threw clay pots full of snakes onto the decks of enemy ships in an ancient naval battle against the Pergamenes, nations have turned to biological warfare when it has suited them – especially when it can be claimed that massive reserves of anthrax, smallpox, plague, ricin, botulinum and ebola serve to defend the homeland. Despite the extreme unlikeliness of a large-scale biological terrorist attack, the United States, for example, has 219 labs studying anthrax alone. The number of people working in biodefence has increased twentyfold in the past decade.

A review in Science claims that the authors’ argument deserves serious attention:

Klotz and Sylvester spotlight the huge sums of money invested by the U.S. government in biodefense research. Here, they claim, secrecy is having corrosive effects. They also argue that the money pouring into biodefense research is out of proportion to the level of threat. In addition, they contend, this massive investment has backfired to create more risk because now more scientists are working with dangerous pathogens, thus increasing the chances of accident, theft, and deliberate misuse.

All weighty stuff. But, as Thomas Jones in LRB notes, Klotz and Sylvester also get carried away by what sounds like Cold War paranoia. At one point they bring up the subject of “the scariest weapons of all: mind-control agents.” These are largely the realm of science fiction, but apparently white-ruled South Africa carried out research into the use of MDMA for crowd control. Given the apartheid regime’s usual methods – attack dogs, tear gas, beatings, and shootings – a plan to use Ecstasy to suppress a revolt sounds positively benign.

“Ecstasy or smallpox: I know which I’d rather be attacked with. Bring on the ‘mind-control’, please.”

Photo credit: Flickr creative commons licence, uploaded by ClevelandSGS


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1 Response to “Bring on the mind control, please”


  1. 1 thepoisongarden January 19, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    A man stood in Times Square wearing a hat that was 3 ft tall. Someone asked him what the hat was for. ‘It’s to keep the elephants away?’ ‘But there are no elephants in Times Square.’ ‘Ah-ha!’, the man cried.

    The US is spending huge amounts to create protection against risks which don’t exist. The companies working on vaccines, treatments, etc are not going to say it’s unnecessary and the government wants to appear to be acting.

    It doesn’t take a lot of research to realise that ricin, for example, is not a weapon that would be used in a large scale attack.

    I’ve ordered the book so thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    I recently read the 1999 ‘Plague Wars’. The third last paragraph says ‘The grim truth is that the world does now face the very real prospect of an outbreak of plague wars…’ Instead, of course, we got 9/11 and suicide bombers.


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