What do advances in biotechnology have in store for international relations? Consider the following. At a once-secret military research center near Moscow, a new type of anthrax has been developed that can overcome the standard Russian and American vaccines. In Ohio, a military contractor laboratory is awaiting final approval from the Bush administration to replicate the Russian work by creating its own genetically modified version of the disease. And in an academic laboratory in Australia, scientists exploring ways to sterilize mice have discovered how a highly lethal biological agent might be made.
None of these activities violate the 1972 treaty outlawing biological weapons. The treaty only prohibits the development of biological or toxic agents "of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes."
Yet each raises legitimate concerns. The Russian anthrax work was reportedly aimed at creating a vaccine against a lethal naturally occurring strain of the disease. Although the work was undertaken at one of the former Soviet Union's key biological weapons research institutes, it was described at an international conference and the final results were published in a peer-reviewed journal, Vaccine.
But could an anthrax strain with the same properties as the genetically modified Russian variant occur naturally? And if Russia's intentions were indeed peaceful, why haven't Russian scientists shared a sample of the new anthrax strain with American researchers?
Elisa D. Harris is a senior research scholar at the Center for International Security Studies at Maryland.