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COMMENT: Africa needs to watch out for science without conscience

THE crisis in Ukraine has received considerable coverage, focusing mainly on the geopolitical and humanitarian dimensions of the war. But zero attention has been paid, however, to the story of biological weapons developed in laboratories in Ukraine allegedly with support from the US.

Yet, globally, the scale of the proliferation of research on biological warfare is less implicit. Ukraine reveals that with its research boom and geographical coverage, in which several satellite hubs are involved, the US military is in fact defining a revised global doctrine of science-intensive warfare.

This raises several questions on how this might have an impact on similar labs in several African countries. There is a strong reason for concerns to be raised. Unlike other types of weapons of mass destruction, biological weapons have the propensity for self-reproduction, by extension a hazard for domestic security.

The main danger of biological weapons is that they can disguise themselves as ordinary epidemics and can quickly affect a significant number of people. If any virus is released from the lab – accidentally or intentionally – it will cause an inevitable pandemic of incurable diseases.

Worse, many of these labs in Africa are run by private companies, and outside of government control partly because they have diplomatic immunity. This has been spreading under the radar, outside of known contact chains, making a continental and global threat all but inevitable.

The recent political changes and upheavals in several African countries, the presence of compliant regimes, the absence of sophisticated real-time epidemiological surveillance systems and the emergence of a disillusioned public will only weaken proper national oversight mechanisms of shadow biolaboratories.

Reportedly high-threat pathogens designed in these biolabs are resistant to all existing medicines and vaccines. Unless regulated, it could serve all sorts of multinational corporations and the African political elites in finding ways of inflicting the most excruciatingly painful diseases and deaths on millions of men, women, and children.

For example, there is still suspicion over the Ebola epidemic in West Africa (Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia) between 2013 and 2016. Although it has been difficult to substantiate there have been occasional theories that the virus emanated from an internationally run biolab in the region.

An article in a 2014 edition of the Journal of Molecular Biochemistry asked whether the Ebola outbreak in West Africa was ‘a deliberate accident’. The article’s authors noted: ‘Another subject that may cause a plethora of arguments is that this virus may be a laboratory generated virus.

‘It may be assumed that all these could be conspiracy or scaremongering theory.

‘There are some not well-known dark sides of EVD [Ebola virus disease] though, such as the potential use in biological warfare.’

Virtually every major technology has been exploited not only for peaceful purposes but also for hostile ones. Must this also happen with biotechnology, which is rapidly becoming a dominant technology of our age?

The expansion in bacteriological and genetic biological weapons is the most ominous component of military science and technology as well as defence budget. Past wars are replete with this, and there is no guarantee that this would not be the case in future wars.

The distinction between the military and the non-military modes of research is being suppressed. This helped to create and direct the largest and most advanced biological warfare programmes in the world.

Being at the receiving end, the only shield for Africa is to strengthen and expand existing treaties through multilateral mechanisms and processes. There is a need for a swift return to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) of 1975.

Proliferation of secretive biological activity means international control and the appropriate mechanism must be elaborated under the auspices of the BWC before it is too late.




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