Posts Tagged 'bioweapons'

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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