- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 22, 2001

A former Clinton administration bioethics adviser warned this week that recent completion of the human genome makes development of biogenetic weapons nearly certain within five to 10 years unless governments intervene.
He called for an international commission to monitor genetic experiments that could lead to genocidal weapons.
"One could imagine that a state that had a particularly annoying ethnic minority, and if they could make it secret, they might be interested in trying it," said Jonathan Moreno, a former adviser to the Clinton administration who investigated radiation experiments on humans financed by the federal government.
He said biological weapons that target specific ethnic genes could remain undetected for years, until they have decreased the numbers of an entire population. They could, for example, affect birthrates and infant-mortality rates or increase the chances certain races will contract diseases.
"You could identify a unique antigen in a certain group of people and try to knock it out and create a blood disease, such as anemia," said Mr. Moreno, who is a University of Virginia biomedical ethics professor. He spoke this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting in San Francisco.
Last week, two teams of scientists published their rough draft of the human genome, which is like a map of the 3 billion chemical bases that act as building blocks for every cell of a person's body. The scientists came from the National Human Genome Research Institute and Bethesda, Md.-based Celera Genomics, a private company.
They trumpeted their achievement as a breakthrough expected to lead to cures for diseases and genetic problems that were considered incurable until now, such as Alzheimer's disease and cancer.
However, many geneticists say dangerous unknowns remain for the science.
"Like any new technology, genetics is going to raise all sorts of new potentials," said Mary Davidson, executive director of the Genetic Alliance, a Washington-based coalition that advocates genetic research for medical purposes. "And with it, issues that we don't even see yet."
The British Medical Association issued similar warnings in a 1999 report on the dangers of genetic engineering.
Mr. Moreno mentioned as an example recent testimony in the trial of a former apartheid-era biological researcher for the South Africa Defense Force. The testimony indicated that the South African military tried to develop biological weapons that could be used against the black population.
They were particularly interested in finding ways to sterilize black women, he said.
Rumors of the research have been repeatedly denied by the South African government since the 1970s.
The availability of scientific information and materials could make biogenetic weapons development easy to conceal, Mr. Moreno said.
"Genocide does have an especially offensive ring to it," he said. "It's not the sort of thing that even an outlaw government would want known."
The first evidence would surface after it was too late to stop the biological agent's rampage through a population.
"That would be the most attractive sterilization option," Mr. Moreno said. "I think that in the next five to 10 years, attempts will be made. We already have the human genome on the Web."
Mr. Moreno said the history of scientific discoveries was another indicator of the likelihood of military development.
"If you think back to the discovery of germ theory in the late 1900s, within 20 years, people were looking into creating germs for the purposes of warfare," he said. Another example he mentioned was the discovery of nuclear fission in the early 1900s, which soon afterward was used to develop nuclear weapons.
"What gives this story legs is that the human genome project is completed," Mr. Moreno said. "No medical breakthrough in history has ever avoided scrutiny for its military applications."
He estimated the cost of an international commission to monitor genetic experimentation at $100 million per year.

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