Sujatha Byravan

New Delhi has the opportunity to step up as the global leader it aspires to be by taking a practical approach and the moral high road on the subject.

AS INDIANS celebrate Mahatma Gandhi's birthday this October 2, it is worth interpreting his message of peace and non-violence in today's context, especially in the area of biological weapons.

The Biological Weapons Convention, signed by 147 countries, including the United States and India, went into force in 1975. Regarded as one of the major achievements in the history of arms control, it is meant to "exclude completely the possibility of bacteriological agents and toxins being used as weapons" by prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, acquisition, and retention of such weapons.

However, in biodefence research, there is little difference between research, development, testing and evaluation for defensive reasons and for developing weapons. This dual use dilemma may be addressed by enabling multiparty inspection of biodefence research facilities, but in 2001 the U.S. Administration derailed efforts to create a Protocol for enforcement and verification of biological weapons, a decision that upset many countries. Following the U.S.' disruption of the Protocol, The New York Times published a report on secret and highly provocative U.S. biological weapons related activities, including the construction of an anthrax production plant in Nevada, the genetic engineering of anthrax for which there is no protection from existing vaccines, and the manufacture of biological submunition (bomblet) prototypes. While the experiments were described as defensive, a number of experts in biological weapons control, as well as former government officials, believe that such programmes might violate the Convention and could provoke increased biological weapons production by other countries unsettled by apparent U.S. aggression.

Between 2001 and 2007, according to a recent report from the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, the U.S. Government has spent $36 billion among 11 different federal departments and agencies to address the threat of biological weapons. Less than half of this amount (41 per cent) is meant for research, development, testing, and evaluation. A portion has gone towards building at least 20 new high containment research facilities across the country. These facilities are Biosafety Levels 3 and 4, the two highest levels of containment, where increasingly dangerous agents are studied and safety and security measures are the most stringent. While national security is the stated reason for this expansion by the U.S., the proliferation of these labs greatly increases the likelihood of accidental and intentional releases that could threaten public safety and security. The knowledge of, and access to, resources these facilities create can also be misused. In 2001 there were numerous anthrax mailings suspected to have come from a laboratory within the U.S. These mailings showed that biodefence laboratories could become a source of home-grown terrorism.

The increase in spending in biological weapons research has understandably made other countries nervous and there are reports of the possibility of increased spending by India and China in this area. While some biotech companies, India's pharmaceutical industry, and other scientists in India might salivate at the prospect of capitalising on such research, participating in a biological weapons arms race and justifying this as "threat assessment" and "defensive measures" certainly does not make India safer.

The current situation provides India the opportunity to step up as the global leader we aspire to be by taking a practical approach and the moral high road on this matter.

One option is for India to request a formal investigation through the U.N. if we believe that another country has violated the Convention. Further, emphasising that a verification strategy is the only way for everyone to be secure from such weapons, India should raise its concerns at the international level and further address this global challenge by calling upon the Bush administration and other countries to comply with, and to agree on, a protocol for international verification. Participating in a global race for biological weapons is not the answer if we want the country and the world to indeed be safe from biological and chemical weapons in the medium term and in the long run.

Somehow, I don't think the Mahatma would support this arms race either.

(The writer is President, Council for Responsible Genetics, Cambridge, Massachusetts.)