Many of the University of Utah's leading biologists and medical doctors are attacking the U.S. military and its germ warfare research plans. Their weapon is simply a petition.

It is signed by 140 holders of advanced degrees plus nine graduate students, and says the military's overall plans to develop defenses against germ warfare are misguided and dangerous to citizens. It especially condemns Army plans for a lab at Dugway Proving Ground to make aerosols out of disease-causing germs.The scientists also want a committee of non-military physicians, scientists and citizens to have oversight over the military's research plans, and for the military to conduct all its research in the open.

Biology professor Naomi C. Franklin, who coordinated the petition, said petitioners include five department chairmen; 85 percent of the biology department faculty; 75 percent of the faculty in cellular, viral and molecular biology; and many of the department of infectious disease faculty.

"We feel that this considerable representation, though not complete, is sufficient to indicate that there is need to fully reconsider the Department of Defense's Biological Defense Research Program. It should not be permitted to proceed as projected," Franklin said.

The petition says it finds military plans to develop defenses against biological attack "to be flawed, hazardous and likely to break the constraints of the 1972 convention" banning the use or stockpile of biological weapons.

A major flaw, the scientists say, is that plans suggest the military may use genetic engineering to create new biowarfare agents for use in testing such defensive equipment as face masks, detectors and decontaminants.

The scientists say the military should not use real pathogens, or disease-causing germs, in such research - especially new, genetically engineered ones that produce disease without cure. They said research should use simulants instead, which are safer and would produce reliable results in research.

Also, the petition said defenses should be designed to protect generally against a wide array of biological agents, not specifically to protect against certain new types of genetically engineered agents.

"An infinite variety of potentially lethal agents already exists or could be produced by genetic engineering. Engineered organisms raise the specter of epidemics that can be neither diagnosed nor treated. In view of the variety of agents possible, it is essential that defense be general rather than specific."

The petition especially attacked plans for the aerosol lab at Dugway with the highest level of protection possible.

"Their request for such a high containment facility anticipates the testing of genetically engineered biowarfare agents," the petition said. "Any use of actual pathogens, particularly in aerosols, will present a hazard to workers, their families and the community at large.

"Even endemic (or locally found) agents of such diseases as anthrax, tularemia and plague, normally poorly transmissible, will become highly dangerous when aerosolized."

Of note, Dugway officials have said the Army has no plans to make aerosols out of new genetically engineered organisms. However, they have not ruled out that possibility in the future.