The executive director of a national committee concerned about genetic engineering says that if the Army builds an advanced germ warfare defense lab at Dugway Proving Ground, it could cause a dangerous escalation worldwide in such research.
In addition, Nachama Wilker, director of the Boston-based Committee for Responsible Genetics, doubts it is possible to create defenses against certain germs.Wilker was among those who testified at recent Utah hearings on the proposed lab and was interviewed by the Deseret News. The committee she directs is made up of scientists, public health and public-policy professionals, trade unionists and other concerned citizens.
Building the proposed new safety level four lab, as well as the general increase in germ warfare research by the Reagan administration, "destabilize the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972," she said.
"Over 100 countries signed it, including the United States and Russia."
It bans research in offensive biological weapons.
But by stepping up research, she said, the risk becomes greater that other countries will begin working in the field of germ warfare, said Wilker.
"In this way, the program also threatens the nation's health," she said. "Defensive biological weapons research involving threat assessment and the testing of defenses against them will not be easily distinguishable from an offensive weapons research program."
In fact, she said, the threat of disease is so unpredictable and the range of biological warfare germs is so large, "that the very concept of defending the country against such agents is misleading."
What might happen, she said, is an escalation of the arms race, based on biological weapons.
"Other countries would start doing more research in this area because the United States is doing more research. . . . We would do more research because they're doing more research."
Sooner or later, some lab somewhere might slip up and release some monstrously virulent disease, causing a worldwide plague.
The Army is already working with "some of the most toxic substances known to humankind," she said.
Wilker said nobody knows how some microorganisms transform themselves from a harmless variety to a dangerous type, and this is another danger.
"We're not able to prevent the spread of many naturally occurring infections," Wilker said.
"The character of biological warfare, the intentional development of pathogenic agents and organisms difficult to control raises much deeper uncertainty and greater concern to us."
The only way out of the dangerous cycle is to work to improve the treaty, she said. The United States could try to find ways to verify that the Soviet Union is not doing this kind of research.
The United States should "not take the provocative actions," she said.