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A scientist who developed a deadly virus calls for tighter controls on biological weapons

Annabelle Duncan, the vice-chairman of the UN team that investigated biological warfare in Iraq after the Gulf War, said yesterday (Thursday) that the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention must be urgently updated.

Annabelle Duncan, the vice-chairman of the UN team that investigated biological warfare in Iraq after the Gulf War, said yesterday (Thursday) that the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention must be urgently updated. "As of today, the treaty says - do not produce biological weapons" she said. "There is no way to monitor it, so if you think someone is cheating you can't do anything about it."

Duncan made the comments after it was reported on Wednesday that a team of Australian researchers, of which Duncan is a part, had inadvertently developed a virus that destroys the immune system of mice and kills you in as little as nine days. The genetically modified viruses, reported in New Scientist magazine, do not affect humans, but the virus's creators say the same technique could be used to make human diseases far more deadly.

The scientists, who use technology that could be applied to biological warfare, were looking for a biological preventative that would stop plagues carried by mice and rats. The scientists genetically modified a virus similar to the smallpox virus and after a few days they discovered that the virus they created destroyed the mice's immune system.

"I'm not saying that the research should not be carried out since we can lose so many discoveries that can be gained from them," said Duncan, "I'm talking about the fact that it will be very, very difficult for someone to use the results in a negative way."

140 countries have signed the Biological Weapons Convention. The treaty is a remnant of the Cold War and it prohibits the development, production and stockpiling of bacteriological and toxic weapons. In the last four years, talks have been held to give more power to the UN's biological weapons inspectors. So far, almost no progress has been made in the discussions. Duncan said she hoped the treaty's signatories would agree to establish a body that would oversee biological research and have enforcement powers.

News agencies

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