ODDLY, there is no law in the United States prohibiting private possession of a biological bomb. Admittedly, anthrax spores or the black plague virus are not handy items homeowners are likely to keep in their basements. But there is no law preventing any US resident - or, for that matter, any terrorist group - from assembling them into biological weapons.
That may soon be changing, however.
Already the Bush administration is endorsing new legislation that would specifically prevent any individual in the US from possessing any biological ``weapon of mass destruction'' or assisting a foreign state in acquiring one.
The threat of terrorism may be one of the reasons the legislation seems to have found new life. Another is the relative ease with which biotechnology can reproduce dangerous toxins, viruses, and other microrganisms. Under laboratory conditions, a single deadly cell reproducing itself can theoretically yield 281 trillion cells in 24 hours.
In the hands of terrorists, biological weapons could cause huge civilian casualties. A tiny amount (0.077 of an ounce) of tularemia bacteria, the source of rabbit fever, can produce a cloud 325 feet high, covering six-tenths of a square mile, which could theoretically infect thousands of people. Or one gram of typhoid culture, dropped into a public water supply, could theoretically do damage equal to 40 pounds of cyanide.
Such weapons are so unpredictable that the US, the Soviet Union, and virtually every country in the world has outlawed them.
An international treaty was signed in 1972, and the US Senate ratified it in 1975. But there are no enforcement provisions in the treaty. The US government has never passed legislation that implements the treaty and incorporates its provisions into American law.
``Simply stated, no statute exists for prohibiting citizens from making biological weapons,'' says Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D) of Wisconsin. Legislation was introduced in 1973 and 1980, but was never passed by Congress. For the next eight years, the Reagan administration took the position that existing US laws were adequate to cope with the problem.
The new legislation endorsed by Bush has been introduced by a relative newcomer in the US Senate, Herbert Kohl (D) of Wisconsin. The bill, called the Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989, quickly picked up co-sponsors and received a speedy hearing last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee. Representative Kastenmeier, a long-time critic of biological weapons, has introduced similar legislation in the House.
Since 1969, the US has destroyed all the biological weapons in its arsenal. The Soviet Union has never disclosed whether it posessed such weapons or, if it did, when and how they were destroyed. The US still maintains a multimillion-dollar program to study defenses against biological weapons and exotic diseases that American expeditionary forces might encounter in various parts of the world.
Senator Kohl says that the new legislation would not affect purely defensive research. He says the new legislation is also aimed at stopping the spread of biological weapons to other countries. US intelligence sources say 10 countries - which they refuse to name - either possess or are in the process of acquiring biological weapons. Endorsing the legislation in congressional testimony last week, Assistant Secretary of State for Politico-military Affairs H.Allen Holmes told the Judiciary Committee, ``Passage of such legislation at this time would give a clear signal to the world that the United States is serious about controlling the proliferation of biological weapons.... The legislation is timely and important....''
The Department of Justice has also approved the bill, with some reservations. Ronald K. Noble, a deputy assistant attorney general in the department's criminal division, calls the legislation ``an effective new tool that would fill a gap in our current statutory arsenal against potential terrorist activities.''
Much of the administration's enthusiasm for the measure can probably be traced to President Bush, who repeatedly declared during last year's campaign that he wanted to bring about the abolition of chemical and biological weapons worldwide. The President has taken particular interest in the issue over the years. At Geneva in 1984, while he was vice-president, Bush personally introduced a comprehensive US draft for a treaty banning chemical weapons. That document has since gained wide acceptance as the basis for an international agreement, which is still being negotiated.
Mr. Noble, in his testimony, suggested modifications to the legislation. The Justice Department has zeroed in on the question of intent - specifically, whether the government should have the entire burden of proving the intent of anyone posessing dangerous biological agents. It also wants to provide for wiretaps of suspects and forfeiture of any biological agents confiscated in the course of an investigation.
But Richard Godown, president of the Industrial Biotechnology Association, expressed concern that ``at no time should the burden of proving innocence shift to the defendant.''
He notes that the biotechnology industry is ``growing rapidly'' and anticipates sales of between 15 and $40 billion by the year 2000.
Certain biologic agents and toxins are critical to research, Mr. Godown says, especially in developing drugs to combat the AIDS virus. There must be safeguards to ensure that such biological materials are not seized and destroyed because some critics claim the research has a ``warlike goal,'' he adds.
``Our concerns,'' says Godown, ``are not with the intent of [the bill's sponsors], but rather with what the lawyers might do to your language.''
Kohl promised to work out compromise language that would ensure passage of the legislation. Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, a molecular biologist at the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, says congressional attention to the issue of dangerous biological agents is welcome.
The 1972 Biological Weapons Convention pledges the US ``to exclude completely the possibility of biological agents being used as weapons,'' Ms. Rosenberg says.
``This bill represents the first effort in that direction that Congress has made in many years,'' she testified.
``It is important,'' she concluded, ``that it succeed.''