When President Reagan recently called for a worldwide ban on the manufacture and use of chemical weapons, the press didn’t ask him about U.S. involvement in “germ warfare.” Officially, the U.S. has renounced it. In 1969, President Richard Nixon pledged we would never develop or using biological weapons; in 1972, he signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological and Toxin Weapons which bans even the possession of such agents. Yet, under the guise of “defensive” research, the Department of Defense has sponsored a broad program of studies involving the latest techniques of genetic engineering.
The Pentagon’s biological warfare (B.W.) researchers are using recombinant DNA (gene splicing) technology, whose peacetime applications have already raised serious questions. Pentagon researchers are not using gene splicing techniques to create new “super germs” or for other B.W. applications. Rather, the major thrust of the current research is to develop vaccines that will protect the U.S. or allied troops and populations against biological agents that might be used by the enemy or U.S. forces. However, the main deterrent to germ warfare today is the fear of’ retaliation; therefore if fail-safe vaccines are developed, the use of B.W. agents s would become an option.
According to the National Science Foundation, expenditures on biological research by DOD have increased 54% since 1980, reaching $100 million in 1983. After a vaccine is created, it would be mass-produced and the next step would be mass-inoculation. The Army is studying the effectiveness of aerosol immunization in which the vaccine would be inhaled rather than swallowed or taken by injection. Although aerosol vaccines produce immunity, they are more dangerous and less effective than standard methods. Then why consider aerosols? The answer is they could be used clandestinely. An entire civilian population could be covertly inoculated against B.W. agents by spraying a vaccine over wide areas.
(In the 1950s, the Army sprayed “simulants”– supposedly innocuous germs — over 117 square miles of the San Francisco Bay area to test this technique’s feasibility in biological warfare. Similar tests were conducted in the New York City subways. Details of the experiment were not revealed until the late 1970s, so millions of unwitting civilians were exposed to the germs without knowing it.)
The Department of Defense argues that the current aerosol research is for civilian defense purposes, but the extensive research being carried out on nearly every aspect of biological warfare, from the lethality of various germs to the efficiency of different delivery systems, come dangerously close to offensive research which is forbidden under the 1972 ban signed by Nixon. Finally, antidotes to B.W. agents eliminate the main inhibition to the use of these agents: the fear of retaliation.
THE NATION, 12/10/83, “DNA–Key to Biological Warfare,” by Charles Piller.