Yesterday afternoon I initiated a short debate in the Moses Room of the House of Lords on the biological threats facing the United Kingdom, specifically I was asking “Her Majesty’s Government what arrangements they have in place to protect the residents of the United Kingdom against biological threats; and what measures they are taking to promote the international regulation of biological weapons and to ensure that security standards are sufficient in laboratories engaged in biological research around the world.”

The National Risk Register has in its top tier of risks facing the UK major natural hazards, such as a flu pandemic, but also includes as a serious threat in that top tier of risks a biological attack by terrorists.

As Lord Tony Giddens pointed out later in the debate:

“There are three sets of factors which make biological threats far more menacing than they were for previous generations. The first of these … is work in scientific laboratories that is designed to unpack the basic building blocks of nature but which can have spin-offs of a dangerous kind. … Secondly, there is the disruption to or destruction of the world’s ecosystems, releasing pathogens from their normal hosts. The process is normally known as zoonosis and it is one that is fraught with implications for human beings. Thirdly, … we have globalisation which can transmit pathogens almost immediately from one side of the world to the other.”

But the other big change that I had highlighted was the speed of technological advance that has taken place in the last ten or fifteen years in respect of genetic manipulation and as I explained:

“viruses are very simple. They are simply a capsule, often with perhaps 10 or 12 genes within them. The changing of just one gene within a virus can have a very profound effect on what that virus does: how easily it is transmitted, the extent to which it can be transmitted from an animal to a human being or between humans, and the consequences for the organism that is infected.

In fact, in 2001 the Journal of Virology published a research paper that demonstrated a whole number of ways of modifying the mousepox virus. This new virus was so effective that it overwhelmed the immune system of the test mice, causing massive liver failure and eventually killing the subjects. That reaction occurred even if the mice had been vaccinated against the mousepox virus. That was a legitimate scientific experiment—an effort to control the mouse population in Australia—but it demonstrated that a quite small change in a single gene with comparatively simple techniques could have major consequences.

These techniques are becoming more straightforward and all sorts of legitimate research is taking place in these areas around the world. Some of this could have the consequence of rendering a vaccine ineffective; some of it could confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics and antiviral agents in pathogenic organisms; it could increase the virulence of a pathogen, or make it easier for that pathogen to be transmitted; or it could perhaps alter the range of hosts for that pathogen. A whole number of things are now technically possible that were not easily doable 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Entirely legitimate research on genetic manipulation and modification is of course going on all over the world for entirely benign purposes.

The question that I want to pose is: how well regulated around the world is that research? How confident can we be that other countries are applying the sorts of restrictions that we would wish to see? Some pharmaceutical companies may have an interest in carrying out experiments and developing their techniques in countries where the regulatory regime is far less intense than it might be in our own country.”

Biological weapons are outlawed under the Biological Weapons Convention, which has been signed by virtually every country in the world.  However, as I pointed out:

“although countries have said that they accept that they should not be developing biological weapons, the world has not set up what we might consider to be any effective system for monitoring compliance or verification. Some of the biggest and most powerful countries—the United States of America, for one—are extremely dubious about setting up any external system to monitor their own compliance and do not necessarily see the need for a supervisory body.

The US, for example, clearly has no official bioweapons capability but has constructed a huge research base, in many different centres around the United States, under the National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures programme. That is undertaking, no doubt quite properly, genetic research, development and testing. However, if the United States says, “We are not happy with our compliance with the Biological Weapons Convention ever being tested by anybody else”, it is very difficult to see how that could be enforced on other countries.

Scepticism also persists about whether Russia’s offensive bioweapons capabilities have been completely dismantled. There are, I think, five Russian military bioweapons facilities which remain closed to outside inspection. Many of the officials linked to their current defensive programme are the same officials that developed Soviet offensive capabilities during the Cold War. There is a question again about how secure those facilities are, particularly as we know that regimes change and that certain parts of the world become less stable as things move forward.”

I also warned that:

“There is clearly a risk that stocks of materials developed for one purpose could be misused or fall into the hands of terrorist groups or, potentially, rogue regimes.”

And concluded as follows:

“In responding, can the Minister first say what is being done to improve supervision of these matters? Secondly, what is being done to regulate the security of scientific establishments, including those that hold stocks of pathogens? It all ends with a fundamental question. We are at risk, as a nation, from a pandemic of whatever sort and from whatever origin, whether naturally or unnaturally occurring. Are we really satisfied that our emergency and health services are able to withstand that?”

The Minister who responded was Lord Wallace of Saltaire who acknowledged that:

“This is an important subject, and both a domestic and international one. We are concerned with the potential of a terrorist attack and the very distant potential of a global state attack. … We are also concerned with the possibility of accidental release from badly secured laboratories.”

Being a LibDem Minister he could not avoid taking the opportunity to snipe at his Conservative Coalition colleagues, saying:

“This is an area of domestic and international overlap. I would not discourage noble Lords from pointing out, as we deal with the intensely emotional issue of the defence of British sovereignty from European and other interference, that this is one of many areas where you cannot have entirely different British and foreign issues. We have to have international co-operation and, as far we can, regulation.”

He did confirm that:

“The Government are deeply committed to protecting the United Kingdom from biological threats. That requires us to have strong measures at home and co-operation abroad.”

but warned that:

“There is resistance to a strong international compliance programme … it is not simply from the United States, let alone from the American pharmaceutical industry, but from a range of other countries that I will not go through. For many of them it is a question of sovereignty and, for one or two south Asian countries, of suspicion of the West. There are limits to what we can achieve and we have to work as far as we can through education, co-operation and providing assistance. I also note that we are working with our partners inside the European Union through the establishment of centres of excellence with regional centres around the world to build this level of co-operation.”

His basic message was:

“There are some real problems here … this is a very complex area.”

And he concluded  - rather strangely for a Government Minister – with:

“I shall finish by saying that we need to keep on challenging our Government and even more so other governments.”

We?!

So I suppose those of us who took part in the debate were being told: keep on nagging us and maybe we (the Government) will finally take this as seriously as it deserves.

If you want to read the full debate it is here.

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