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Scientists Tighten Security over Germ Terror Threat

Stewart Tendler and Daniel McGrory

New checks on stocks of 100 deadly virusesMI5 issues warning to universities and labs
Britain’s laboratories have been ordered to strengthen security on stocks of more than 100 deadly viruses and bacteria after an MI5 warning that Islamic terrorists are training in germ warfare. The biological agents include polio, rabies, tuberculosis and avian flu. Food poisoning bacteria such as E. coli and the sources of a number of rare tropical and Middle Eastern illnesses are also included.

Scientists and laboratory staff in universities, hospitals and pharmaceutical companies who deal with agents will have to be vetted by police, and their laboratories will be checked by government safety inspectors. Stock will have to be regularly audited. The crackdown comes after MI5 privately warned the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that al-Qaeda was actively recruiting scientists. Extremist groups are known to have targeted students, offering to fund courses in return for using their newly acquired expertise.

Last November Dame Eliza Man-ningham-Buller, the Director-General of MI5, gave warning that terror attacks in Britain could involve weapons of mass destruction.

She said that terrorists were seeking the means to mount a range of attacks using chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear devices. “We know that the aspiration is there, we know attempts to gather materials are there, we know that attempts to gather technologies are there,” she said.

Ayman al-Zawahri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, warned the the West in an internet video last night of a reprisal “far worse than anything it has seen” if Washington did not change its policies towards Muslim states.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in America, security at laboratories was stepped up amid new intelligence on the ambitions of al-Qaeda and its allies, and restrictions were placed on 47 agents under the Antiterrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001.

Yesterday the Government announced that the list was being increased to 103, including 45 viruses, 21 bacteria, 2 fungi, 13 toxins and 18 animal pathogens.

Tony McNulty, the Home Office minister in charge of policing, said: “The terror threat is always changing and we must adapt to ensure it is combated effectively. As terrorists look for new ways to endanger life, we have to take action to be one step ahead.”

He said: “That is why we are extending the list of controlled substances to prevent terrorist groups using chemical or biological materials as terrorist weapons.”

The move comes after a review by a Whitehall committee known as the Salisbury Group, which includes MI5, police, scientists from Porton Down, Defra, the Health and Safety Executive and the Health Protection Agency.

The additions to the list include many of the bacteria and viruses that strike at animals, such as foot-and-mouth disease. These might not be harmful to humans but could be devastating to the economy, as was the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Britain in 2001.
Others such as Rift Valley fever normally infect animals but have spread to human populations and caused widespread illness and death as the illness did in Egypt in the 1970s.

Guanarito virus or Venezuelan haemorrhagic fever can be fatal in a third of cases, while Shigella boydii can cause dysentery.

John Wood, of the National Institute for Biological Standards and Controls, said scientists will have to show a valid reason for working with the agents. He said the changes mirrored controls in the US and would probably mean much stricter access to laboratories.

Alistair Hay, Professor of Environmental Toxicology at Leeds University, said that the measures were prudent. He said the introduction of the first controls had been accepted by the scientific community.

He said that in the 1980s a cult in Orgeon used a bacterium to spread food poisoning and sabotage elections that threatened them.