Clinton: Gene synthesis raises bioweapon threat

GENEVA - New gene assembly technology that offers great benefits for scientific research could also be used by terrorists to create biological weapons, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Wednesday.

The threat from bioweapons has drawn little attention in recent years, as governments focused more on the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation to countries such as Iran and North Korea.

But experts have warned that the increasing ease with which bioweapons can be created might be used by terror groups to develop and spread new diseases that could mimic the effects of the fictional global epidemic portrayed in the Hollywood thriller "Contagion."

Many have been calling on the elimination of current viruses and diseases that, if in the wrong hands, could be a powerful weapon. The U.S. announced plans to destroy their smallpox stockpile in May 2011, despite protests from the public. The government feared that terrorists could use the virus to unleash a devastating attack. The disease, which killed one-third of those who were infected, was last seen in 1978.

As late as 2010, a congressional mandated panel reported that the U.S. would not be prepared for a bioweapon attack. The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation said the Obama administration failed in its efforts to prepare for and respond to a biological attack, such as the release of deadly viruses or bacteria. After that report, Obama announced during his State of the Union speech that the country would be making strides to make sure it was prepared for a biological terrorist attack scenario.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been pushing for countries to eliminate their stockpiles since 2006. However, at the WHO's annual meeting, it was decided that nations' could keep their smallpox stockpiles for at least another three more years in order to develop vaccines and anti-virals, according to Reuters.

Speaking at an international meeting in Geneva aimed at reviewing the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, Clinton told diplomats that the challenge was to maximize the benefits of scientific research and minimize the risks that it could be used for harm.

"The emerging gene synthesis industry is making genetic material more widely available," she said. "This has many benefits for research, but it could also potentially be used to assemble the components of a deadly organism."

Gene synthesis allows genetic material, the building blocks of all organisms, to be artificially assembled in the lab, greatly speeding up the creation of artificial viruses and bacteria.

The U.S. government has cited efforts by terrorist networks such as al-Qaeda to recruit scientists capable of making biological weapons as a national security concern.

"A crude but effective terrorist weapon can be made using a small sample of any number of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment, and college-level chemistry and biology," Clinton told the meeting.

She cited the Aum Shinrikyo cult's attempts in Japan to develop anthrax in the 1990s, and the 2001 anthrax attacks in the United States that killed five people.

Washington has urged countries to be more transparent about their efforts to clamp down on the threat of bioweapons. But U.S. officials have also resisted calls for an international verification system, akin to that for nuclear weapons, saying it is too complicated to monitor every single lab's activities.