Rapid advances in genetics could make terrifying "ethnic cleansing" weapons a reality within 10 years, doctors warned yesterday. Genetic biological weapons would be able to target particular ethnic groups by homing in on the molecular differences between, for example, blacks and whites or Arabs and Jews.
Only in the presence of a specific set of genetic "markers" would the death-dealing viral or bacterial agent be activated. A built-in "clock" could even ensure that such a weapon switched itself off after the job was done.
It sounds like science fiction but experts from the British Medical Association warned yesterday that early versions of such weapons could exist in five to 10 years. Ironically, the new terror weapons would be spin-offs from advances that will reap huge rewards for medicine and save countless lives.
Two key developments were highlighted by the experts. One is the Human Genome Project which aims to map the entire human genetic blueprint by 2003. The other is gene therapy, a technology still in its infancy, which uses "vectors" such as harmless viruses to carry corrective DNA into malfunctioning cells.
Prof Malcolm Dando, from the department of peace studies at Bradford University, author of the BMA report Biotechnology Weapons and Humanity, published yesterday, said: "The development of molecular medicine based on our new understanding of genomics will allow a vast range of new weaponry to be developed. Among that range could be biological weapons specifically targeted at particular ethnic groups."
Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of health policy research, said: "It would be a tragedy if in 10 years' time the world faces the reality of genetically engineered and possibly genetically targeted weapons. Getting rid of weapons once they are produced is very difficult; governments may be reluctant to give up weapons that the rest of the world finds unacceptable. Terrorists certainly will be.
"We still have the chance to strengthen the ban on these weapons. We must do so now and we must make sure the ban is policed effectively."