Newly raised in Western Europe is a disturbing question: Is the Soviet Union working on advances in genetic engineering that could one day be used in biological warfare against the West?
The possibility is being discussed anew because the KGB has classified the work of a world-famous Moscow geneticist, Dr. David Goldfarb, as a matter of state security, and as a result has refused to let him emigrate.
About 200 prominent biologists from 13 European countries, including 13 Nobel Prize winners, have just signed a request to the USSR Academy of Sciences asking that Dr. Goldfarb and his wife be released because he is in poor health, and because none of his work has been secret or military in nature.
Their petition, cabled to the academy from London by his son, Dr. Alexander Goldfarb, urges the president of the academy, Anatoly Alexandrov, to tell the Soviet authorities that ''identifying basic research in molecular biology with national security interests does not contribute to a favorable image of your country, which is necessary for mutually beneficial scientific exchange with the West.''
Dr. Alexander Goldfarb, who emigrated in 1975, said in an interview here he feared that a blanket security instruction might have been issued in Moscow that no one whose work was connected with genetic engineering was to be allowed to emigrate, whether his research had been open or closed. This would suggest military applications.
''My father knows nothing about germ warfare,'' he said. ''He has never even held the lowest grade of security clearance in the Soviet Union.''
The possibility that the Soviets may be engaged in research efforts connected with biological warfare had been raised earlier in the United States by Rep. Jonathan B. Bingham (D) of New York. He told the House of Representatives April 9, 1981, that Dr. Goldfarb was a leading scientist ''in the area of gene manipulation.
''His particular field of research was bacterial plasmids. Plasmid research is associated with gene cloning in recombinant DNA experiments. Goldfarb was not involved in any military-related work whatsoever . . . .
French Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Andre Lwoff of the Pasteur Institute in Paris wrote to the British magazine ''Nature'' April 16, 1981, saying Dr. David Goldfar worked on the genetics of bacteria, and ''if such research is classified , it means that Soviet Russia intends to use molecular genetics for biological warfare.''
Until May 1979, when he filed his application to emigrate, Dr. Goldfarb was a full professor in Moscow, and director of the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Bacteriophages of the Soviet Academy of Sciences.
''Biological warfare (of the kind using bacteria developed through genetic engineering) is still in the distant future,'' his son said in London before flying to take up a junior faculty position at Columbia University in New York. ''It involves developing new microbes, but my father knows nothing about it.''
Dr. Goldfarb senior has been offered a position with the Weizmann Institure in Israel.
His case appears to have split the ruling establishment in Moscow. While he has been told by the KGB that he possesses ''state secrets'' as a result of his work, a leading member of the Academy of Sciences wrote a number of letters to colleagues in the West last year saying that ''there is no objection to granting visas from the academy side.''
The member is Professor Yuri Ovchinnikov, a non-voting member of the Communist Party's Central Committee and the vice-president of the Academy of Sciences in charge of all basic biological and chemical research in the Soviet Union.
''So here we have the top man in his field saying the Soviet scientific community has no objections to my father emigrating, but the KGB disagrees,'' said Dr. Alexander Goldfarb.