BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - The International Committee of the Red Cross has appealed to the biotechnology community to ensure that potentially dangerous developments in biotechnology are subject to effective controls.

The message from the ICRC is that "it is essential that humanity acts together now to prevent the abuse of biotechnology."

The committee is particularly alarmed by the potential hostile uses of biological agents. The appeal, made under the ICRC's mandate to protect and help victims of armed conflict, follows the collapse last year of negotiations to strengthen the international Biological Weapons Convention.

The appeal, titled Biotechnology, Weapons and Humanity, was issued at the end of a conference hosted by the ICRC in Montreux, Switzerland, last week, at which government and independent experts assessed the risk of abuses of biotechnology.

The ICRC acknowledges the potential benefits of biotechnology, but says there is also a great capacity for its misuse, and lists potential risks including the alteration of disease agents to make them more virulent; creation of viruses from synthetic materials; the possibility of developing ethnically or racially specific biological agents; and the creation of novel biological warfare agents for use with corresponding vaccines for one's own troops or populations.

Jakob Kellenberger, ICRC president, told the conference, "The life processes at the core of human existence must never be manipulated for hostile ends. In the past, scientific advances have all too often been misused."

ICRC asks biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies to scrutinize all research with potentially dangerous consequences, adopt professional and industrial codes of conduct to prevent abuse of biological agents and ensure effective regulation of research programs, facilities and biological agents that may lend themselves to misuse.

Negotiations to strengthen the 1972 BWC broke down in November after the U.S. rejected the introduction of a compliance monitoring regime. As a result, the ICRC says there is an urgent need for a renewed commitment by all countries to ensure effective control of biological agents. The BWC talks are due to resume in November.

The ICRC first appealed against the use of chemical weapons in 1918 and was behind the 1925 Geneva Protocol against the use of chemical and biological weapons.