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Biotech Breakthroughs May Put Chemical Arms in Easier Reach

By Diane Barnes

Global Security Newswire

A damaged microscope seen in a Gaza Strip laboratory caught in crossfire between Palestinian fighters in 2007. An international panel said it is still impossible to fully determine how future technologies may make chemical-warfare materials easier to produce and harder to regulate. A damaged microscope seen in a Gaza Strip laboratory caught in crossfire between Palestinian fighters in 2007. An international panel said it is still impossible to fully determine how future technologies may make chemical-warfare materials easier to produce and harder to regulate. (Abid Katib/Getty Images)

An international team wants to closely watch how future technologies could make the world's deadliest poisons easier to produce and harder to regulate.

It is still impossible to know how an array of emerging technologies -- such as custom-built proteins and microscopic containers -- will affect capabilities to manufacture and deliver lethal chemicals banned under international law, scientific advisers to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said in a new assessment.

International authorities should continue monitoring the potential of biotechnology to affect enforcement of the Chemical Weapons Convention, even though developments relevant to the production of banned chemical agents "are currently limited," says the final report by a working group of the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board.

Despite the field's present limitations, "biomediated processes might still be effective for producing weaponizable quantities of toxins that are lethal," the report warns. "New production processes, combined with developments in drug discovery and delivery, could be exploited in the development of new toxic chemicals that could be used as weapons."

The panel added that the agency's mandate hems in its enforcement authority, potentially complicating any global effort to oversee biological innovations that fall in a gray area of international law.

The Chemical Weapons Convention may not require member nations to report "many facilities taking advantage of biologically mediated production processes," the advisory panel said in its report. The group added that the treaty exempts numerous activities that "may be scientifically justified" for peaceful purposes, such as producing biofuel or alcoholic drinks.

The report also calls for routine consultations with officials responsible for overseeing a separate international ban on biological arms. OPCW Director General Ahmet Üzümcü three years ago directed his agency's scientific advisers to consider how the organization's enforcement tasks may be affected by the ongoing "convergence" of chemical and biological sciences.

The panel advised Üzümcü to discuss convergence issues with overseers of the Biological Weapons Convention.

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