Bioterror And Biosafety

By Vandana Shiva

The reports of anthrax cases in Florida and New York have put a renewed focus on bioterror and the risks and hazards posed by biological agents. From the U.S. to India, governments are on high alert. Even the World Health Organization has issued warnings. Americans and Europeans have been stockpiling gas masks and antibiotics: images of police and investigators in biohazard suits have started to make front-page appearances in newspapers and magazines.

The panic and fear being spread about biohazards in the post September 11 period is so different from the complacency earlier, even though the threat to public health and the environment from hazardous biological agents is not new.

If we have to respond adequately and consistently to bioterror, we need to take two basic issues into account.

Firstly, infective, lethal, hazardous biological agents cause disease and kill, irrespective of who spreads them and how they spread. The current paranoia arises from the fear that they could get into terrorists hands. However, terrorists can get them because they are around and they pose hazards even if they are not in terrorist hands. As Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic said in his opening remarks of Forum 2000 in Prague on October 14, “Bin Laden did not invent bacterial agents.” They have been invented in defense or corporate labs. Anthrax has been part of the biological warfare of the very states that are today worried about bioterrorism. Genetic engineering of biological organisms, both for warfare and food and agriculture, is creating new biohazards, both intended and unintended.

Secondly, it is fully recognized that a stronger public health system is the only response to bioterrorisim. However, precisely at the time when public health reports are needed most, they are being dismantled under privatization and trade liberalization pressures. Bioterrorism should help governments recognize that we desperately need strong biosafety regulation and public health systems.

The global citizens movement and the movement of concerned scientists for Biosafety has been alerting governments to the ecological and health risks of genetic engineering and therefore the imperative to test, assess, and regulate the release of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) into the environment. The genetic engineering industry, and some governments, would, however, like to introduce GMOs in our food and farming without testing risk assessment and regulation. This basic conflict over the need to assess GMOs for biohazards was at the heart of negotiations that stretched over more than a decade under the aegis of the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity and were finally concluded in February 2000 in Montreal on the Protocol on Biosafety.

These conflicts also moved center stage in the failed WTO Ministerial in Seattle where the U.S. government wanted GMOs to be governed only by rules of free trade treaties while the European Union wanted GMOs regulated under public health and environmental laws at national and global levels.


Regulation Is Imperative

There are two major concerns for potential risks of biohazards from GMOs. Firstly, the vectors used for introducing genes from one organism to another to make a GMO are highly infectious and virulent biological agents. It is their infectious nature that makes them useful as vectors to introduce alien genes into biological organisms. The risks of the use of virulent vectors for engineering novel life forms have not been assessed. Their use for bioterrorism becomes easier as they spread commercially around the world.

Secondly, since GMOs are novel organisms, which have not existed in nature, their impact on the environment and on human health is not known. Ignorance of the impact is being treated as proof of safety, a totally unscientific approach. This has been called a “don’t look, don’t see” approach to biosafety.

While governments sound alerts and the public panics about the use of biological organisms by terrorists, it is also time to reassess the use of genetically engineered organisms in agriculture and food from the perspective of environmental health safety and the spread of the risk of bioterror. After all the tools and techniques used are the same.

In addition, the U.S. plan to actually spray a genetically engineered fungus Agent Green on Coca growing areas in Central America and poppy growing areas in Asia needs to be stopped both because they are grown for food indigenously and because Agent Green’s impact on crops will also be hazardous. All countries worried about bioterrorism and wanting to stop the proliferation of biological warfare need to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention. The U.S. cannot block the Convention if it wants to have safeguards against bioterrorism. Bio-warfare or bioterrorism is the deliberate use of living organisms to kill people. When economic policies based on trade liberalization and globalization deliberately spread fatal, infectious diseases such as AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria, by dismantling health and medical systems, they, too, become instruments of bioterror. Citizens groups have organized world wide against TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) Agreement and GATS (General Agreement on Trade in Services) of the WTO. TRIPS imposes patents and monopolies on drugs, taking essential medicines beyond the reach of the poor.

For example, AIDS medicine, which costs $200 without patents, costs $20,000 with patents. TRIPS and patents on medicines become recipes for spreading disease and death because they take cures beyond people’s reach. Similarly, privatization of health systems as imposed by the World Bank under SAPS (Structural Adjustment Programs) and also proposed in GATS, spreads infectious diseases because low cost, decentralized public health systems are withdrawn and dismantled. These are also forms of bioterror. They are different from the acts of terrorists only because they are perpetrated by the powerful, not the margin- alized and the excluded. They are committed to the fanaticism of the free market ideology, not fundamentalist religious ideologies. But in impact they are the same. They kill innocent people and species by spreading disease.

Stopping the spread of bioterror at all these levels requires stopping the proliferation of technologies that create potentially hazardous biological organisms. It also requires stopping the proliferation of economic and trade policies that are crippling public health systems, spreading infectious diseases, and leaving societies more vulnerable to bioterrorism.

Bioterrorism brings us back to the debate on globalization, the social costs of trade liberalization, and health and environmental risks of new biotechnologies. These are the issues citizens’ movements raised in Seattle and will continue to raise in the future. Organizations calling for caution and raising questions about genetic engineering, TRIPS, GATS, SAPS are the real peacekeepers. They are working to eradicate bioterror at its roots and establish a lasting peace based on biosecurity and biosafety for all humans and all species.                              Z

Verdana Shiva is an environmental leader and author of several books including: Stolen Harvest, Biopiracy, Staying Alive, and Water Wars (forthcoming from South End Press).