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