|LYON - France called on Tuesday for an international monitoring centre to stop dangerous toxins from falling into terrorist hands, as the head of Interpol warned the world was not ready to cope with the horror of a biological attack.|
French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said biotechnology companies, research laboratories, hospitals and universities needed to become more sensitive to the risks associated with hiring staff, working on hazardous pathogens and granting access to sensitive areas.
He urged the creation of a United Nations-linked global watchdog and a database to keep track of potential biological threats.
"Why not create a joint database mapping sensitive labs, with an alert network for thefts, disappearances and suspect transactions, as well as a list of groups and individuals subject to special vigilance because they have tried to acquire sensitive materials," Villepin told police, health and counter-terrorism officials from 155 countries at an Interpol conference on bio-terrorism.
But he stopped short of demanding inspection powers for such a watchdog, along the lines of the UN nuclear agency, acknowledging that this could curb legitimate scientific research.
His comments highlighted the problems of countering biological terrorism in an era when genetic engineering techniques can be applied not just to developing new medicines but also to creating dangerous new virus strains.
Security officials have long warned of the risk of an al Qaeda attack using biological weapons such as anthrax, ricin, botulinum toxin, smallpox, plague or Ebola. Al Qaeda manuals on preparation of biological warfare agents were discovered at the group's training camps in Afghanistan after the US invasion in late 2001. Others have been posted on the Internet.
In a sober opening speech, Interpol Secretary General Ronald Noble said there was no more dangerous criminal threat to all countries.
"There is no crime area where the police generally have as little training than in preventing or responding to bio-terrorist attacks," the head of the 182-nation world police body told delegates.
"There might be pockets of adequate preparedness around the world, but were a massive terrorist attack that resulted in the spread of contagious disease to occur, we would not be prepared."
Noble told reporters that police needed improved communications systems and better contacts with the scientific community to help them prepare for such a disaster.
Jackie Selebi, South African police chief and president of Interpol, cautioned that an attack on the food chain, for example by targeting livestock, was "not science fiction".
'Major panic, temporary paralysis of government functions and private businesses and even civil disorder are all likely outcomes of a bio-terrorism attack," he said.
"In fact, bio-terrorism appears particularly suited to the small, well-informed groups. A bio-terrorist's lab could well be the size of a household kitchen and the weapon built there could be smaller than a toaster, and the range of options available to terrorists will continue to grow."
In the best known biological incident since the Sept. 11 attacks, five people were killed in the United States in 2001 when attackers sent anthrax spores through the postal system, triggering widespread public fear. The crime remains unsolved.
Security officials are still more concerned about the possible release of a deadly virus such as smallpox, which unlike anthrax is contagious and could spread rapidly around the world unless contained.
A 'war game' exercise staged in the United States in January, based on a simultaneous release of smallpox in European cities, highlighted dilemmas for governments such as sharing of vaccine stocks and how to close down international borders.
Story by Mark Trevelyan
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE