"Conduct code mooted for bioweapons trea

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Posted by Lilly from ? ( on Thursday, November 14, 2002 at 4:33PM :

Nature 420, 112 (14 November 2002)

Conduct code mooted for bioweapons treaty



A code of conduct for scientists could help to strengthen the international Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), according to Britain's Royal Society.

Negotiations aimed at reviewing the 1972 convention broke down last December, when the United States blocked plans to allow laboratory inspections as a means for checking compliance with the BTWC (see Nature 414, 675; 2001).

The British government floated the idea of a code of conduct earlier this year as a way to strengthen the BTWC even if the United States maintains its position. The Royal Society's endorsement of the proposal, contained in a report released on 6 November, comes as negotiations on the convention resume this week in Geneva.

The report argues that there is considerable ignorance of the BTWC among British researchers, and that a code of conduct would encourage all scientists to consider the biowarfare applications of planned research.

The society did not give details of a code, but noted that some institutions have already developed their own rules. Some, for example, require researchers to assess biowarfare applications of their work formally before beginning a project.

The need for such formal assessments was highlighted last January, when Australian researchers working on a contraceptive vaccine for rodents inadvertently created a highly virulent strain of mousepox (see Nature 411, 232235; 2001).

Brian Spratt, a molecular biologist at Imperial College in London and a member of the committee that compiled the report, believes that the code of conduct could be incorporated into existing mechanisms. Many universities have safety committees that assess the risk of experiments such as creating strains of genetically modified crops, for example. Spratt says that the same committees could also consider biowarfare implications of proposed research. A professional body within each country with the ability to dole out sanctions could be another enforcement mechanism, the report's authors say.

In addition to the code of conduct, the report recommends that biowarfare issues should be introduced into academic courses. And it calls for an international scientific advisory panel to monitor new developments regularly, in an effort to keep up with the rapid progress in biological technologies.

"It would mean that advances could be kept under international review in a more systematic way than at present," says Brian Eyre, a materials scientist at the University of Oxford, who chaired the committee.
Nature Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2002 Registered No. 785998 England.

-- Lilly
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