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Biological weapons: potential seeds of destruction

Nations must adopt a stronger moral stance against the development of biological weapons because treaties alone are not enough to stop their use, said Nobel laureate Joshua Lederberg in a public address at Stanford University on Jan. 12.

"The cold reality is that it is almost impossible to enforce the existing biological weapons treaty. There is no biological weapons facility which if shut down today could not be rebuilt tomorrow," he said.

As of 1995, 17 countries were suspected of developing biological weapons for offensive purposes. Under heavy diplomatic and military pressure, Russia and Iraq have admitted to past transgressions. The United Nations Security Council is currently investigating Iraqi sites for potential biological weapons, Lederberg said.

In the third annual Albert and Cicely Wheelon Lecture, sponsored by the Center for International Security and Arms Control (CISAC), Lederberg tackled the subject of germ warfare and the enforcement of the 25-year-old treaty that bans it. Lederberg, whose expertise spans issues ranging from bacterial genetics to national security, has served on CISAC's executive committee and has co-chaired the Carnegie Commission on Science, Technology and Government. Formerly chair of genetics at Stanford, he is currently president emeritus at Rockefeller University.

Because of their potential to wreak havoc on both civilians and soldiers, germs are a nightmare weapon. Diseases can be introduced deliberately via infectious bacteria or viruses during military conflict. Bacteria like Bacillus anthracis, which produces the anthrax toxin, are highly infectious and deadly. Under ideal conditions, just 200 pounds of anthax spores can have the same killing power as a nuclear bomb.

In order to limit the development of biological weapons technology, more than 100 nations, including the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Iraq, signed the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention treaty and declared germ weaponry "repugnant to the conscience of mankind." This document, which provides the legal framework for the global regulation of biological weapons, condemns the development, production or stockpiling of microbial agents or toxins that are not justified as having prophylactic or protective purposes.

According to Lederberg, the language of the treaty is problematic. Almost any agent that could be used for biological warfare also has important peaceful and medical uses. "There are very good reasons for growing anthrax, including vaccine development and protection against the disease," said Lederberg. Because this technology has both medical and military applications, it is almost impossible to provide evidence of a formal violation of the treaty's terms. "Anything short of actual weaponization, such as putting a live virus at the end of a bomb or artillery shell, can be legitimized," Lederberg said.

In addition, the technology needed to develop a vaccine is not much different from that needed to make a biological weapon. Some vaccines are created from material isolated from dead bacterial or viral cells. Keep the germs alive, and the potential for a biological weapon exists. Overnight, a nation could shift its research from vaccines to biological weapons.

Another concern is the limited infrastructure required for bio-weapons development. With no more than a beer fermenter and a starting bacterial culture, it is possible to grow trillions of bacteria in a matter of days. "Even if the U.N. security forces shut down Saddam Hussein's biological weapons program, it wouldn't be difficult for him to move his operations elsewhere and begin again," Lederberg said.

As the 20th century draws to a close, an unpleasant paradox has emerged. Although the 1972 treaty ended open stockpiling of biological weapons, it has resulted in covert programs in countries that choose to ignore the international law. Of particular concern is potential use of biological weapons by terrorist organizations. "For a small power, biological weapons are the answer to a prayer, potentially allowing them to cut a deal with a superpower," said Lederberg.

To prevent the resurgence of biological weapons development, Lederberg believes an international consensus is necessary. "There must be a moral mobilization among the nations to enforce the treaty if it is violated. We need to share the conviction that biological weapons are dangerous and should not be developed," he said.

Ultimately, because the technology can be converted easily from peaceful to military uses, it comes down to a question of intent. Why Iraq cultivates anthrax or botulism is a secret. Whether it would use them in a hostile encounter is also a mystery. But one thing is certain: According to Lederberg, our knowledge of the use of microbes is a double-edged sword. "Our knowledge of microbes can be used for good or for evil," he said. "In that knowledge we have the seeds with which to sow our own destruction."


This article was written by Ellen Licking, a science writing intern at Stanford News Service.

By Ellen Licking

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