A proposed Dugway Proving Ground lab might fully ignite a smoldering race to create exotic germ warfare agents through genetic engineering, according to an author who has researched military applications of new biologic technology.
Charles Piller, author of the new book "Gene Wars," said in an interview Friday that the Soviets may reasonably suspect the lab would test new germ weapons--even though their development is banned by the 1972 treaty. The Soviets could accelerate their own germ warfare program to retaliate.The Army says the new lab would merely allow it to safely create aerosols with disease-causing germs to test protective masks, clothes and detectors.
The Army would need only a "bio-safety level 3" rating to work with known germs, but instead is asking for a "bio-safety level 4" rating--which could allow work with genetically engineered germs that create diseases without cure.
The Army says it has no plans for such exotic work now, but will not rule it out as a future possibility. In fact, former Dugway commander James Tipton said such work would need only 60 days for approval anytime after the lab is built.
"If you believe the Army only wants a BL4 facility because it wants to be more safe, then I have a bridge in Brooklyn that I want to sell you," Piller said. "Part of building something is to use it to its fullest potential."
The Soviets would likely make the same "inescapable conclusion," he said.
Plans for the lab have proceeded slowly. A lawsuit forced the Army to prepare an environmental impact statement on the lab, and hearings on a draft of the document brought strong opposition from local politicians. The Army may release final plans on whether to build the lab later this year.
Piller, a science writer for the University of California at San Francisco who is in town to speak at events sponsored by the defense watchdog group, Downwinders, has several ideas he says may prevent a genetic-engineering arms race.
First, he proposes that the United States share much of the technology it is developing at Dugway on how to make clothing and gear to protect soldiers from biologic attack--and that it conduct tests on those gear in the open to reduce worry caused by secret testing with germ warfare agents and simulants.
"Attacks are more likely if there is a perceived weakness. If we share technology on the best gear to protect soldiers, the risk of attacks worldwide is reduced because it is less likely they would be successful," he said.
Piller said the United States also needs to re-evaluate its defensive strategy against possible new genetic-engineered weapons. He said besides developing protective gear, America hopes to develop vaccines against possible new diseases.
The trouble is that genetic-engineering, or altering a germ by splicing in new genes to give it new characteristics, could create an unlimited number of new types of diseases, he said. In the past, only about two dozen types of diseases could be realistically used in germ warfare.
"There's no way you could create a vaccine for all of them," Piller said. "Even if you had a vaccine for hundreds of diseases, which hundreds of vaccines do you give people? You don't know which ones may be used." And research with the exotic germs creates more suspicion and retaliation.
He said the United States would be wiser to stop that research and negotiate stronger verification means in treaties banning germ warfare. He said countries may be willing to accept such terms because germ warfare presents little value in actual battles. It may take days to cause disease, and is difficult to prevent weapons from also infecting friendly troops.