Unite the world against germ warfare

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The international debate over whether Iraq's alleged nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs posed an imminent threat to the United States and its allies provides a stark example of the urgent need for effective international regimes to rein in the spread of weapons of mass destruction.

The need is especially acute in the area of germ warfare. Although a treaty signed by President Nixon in 1972 prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons, it lacks a legally binding verification and monitoring mechanism, rendering it essentially toothless.

The first cases of anthrax bioterrorism occurred in the US in September and October 2001, when letters containing anthrax were mailed to congressional leaders and members of the news media. A General Accounting Office report last month put the cost of the successful Capitol Hill anthrax cleanup at $27 million. In addition to the threat from domestic and international bioterrorism from nonstate groups, close to a dozen countries are suspected of having or seeking an offensive biological weapons capability. Anthrax, plague, and botulinum toxin, if effectively delivered on a large scale, would unleash a horror unlike any we have seen in the US.

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In the face of this clear and present danger, and at precisely the time when we need a strengthened biological weapons regime, international diplomacy is deadlocked. The Bush administration has essentially rejected all negotiations to create a legally binding verification protocol to the biological weapons treaty - leaving a dangerous gap in the control regime. We must redouble efforts to fill this breach, by persuading our elected officials of the benefits of multilateral controls and by promoting new and innovative solutions.

One such innovation is coming from a group of civil-society organizations, including the Harvard Sussex program based in Boston and in Brighton, England. Called the BioWeapons Prevention Project, it will track and report on governmental actions to comply with the biological weapons treaty, as well as monitor developments in the field of biological sciences. The project draws heavily from other nongovernmental efforts involved in monitoring compliance with international rules and norms, in areas such as human rights, small arms, land mines, and the environment. It envisions creating a global network of nongovernmental organizations that will gather, analyze, and present relevant data from countries around the globe.

The recent outbreaks of exotic diseases such as West Nile virus, SARS, and monkeypox have tested the world's public health system, just as the still-unresolved anthrax attacks raised US public awareness of bioterrorism. Clearly, a good healthcare infrastructure and an effective disease detection and medical response program are primary requirements in a country's bioweapon protection strategy. These need to be coupled with resources for intelligence, antiterrorism, civil biodefense and emergency programs.

But no single government will be able to totally protect its citizens from the nightmare of bioterrorism or germ warfare by these means alone. Disease knows no borders, so countries must establish and enforce tough export controls to ensure that they and their industries, while promoting beneficial scientific development, are not also contributing to the spread of biological weapons. These controls must be enforced as part of a unified global approach to this international menace. Only the development of an effective international prohibition regime, enforced by a powerful multilateral agency, will ensure universal control of bioweapons.

Naila Bolus is executive director of the Ploughshares Fund, a global grantmaker working to build a safer world. Ian Davis, a founder of the BioWeapons Prevention Project, is executive director of the British-American Security Information Council, an independent security and arms control research organization.

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