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Genetic weapon: is it on the horizon?

EVEN now, nearly two decades after they were written, the words still leap from the page: ``Forthcoming chemical agents with selective man-stopping power will put into the hands of an assailant a weapon with which he cannot be attacked.''

New research held out ``the possibility of great innate differences in vulnerability to chemical agents between different populations.''

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The title, in two chilling words, captured the essence of Swedish Prof. Carl Larson's article: ``Ethnic Weapons.''

Had the treatise appeared in a science fiction journal, it might have been easy to dismiss as fantasy. But it appeared in Military Review, an official journal of the United States Army Command General Staff College, at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

This 1970 article is one of the few indications that military strategists have seriously contemplated the implications of ethnic weapons - chemical or biological agents that could be targeted against a racial or ethnic group by exploiting a distinctive genetic characteristic.

There is no hard evidence that any country has tried to produce such a substance, even for defensive research.

``I'm convinced that it is not possible to design a weapon that can kill one set of persons and leave the others unharmed,'' says Erhard Geissler, a researcher at the Central Institute for Molecular Biology in East Berlin.

But other researchers suggest there is no fundamental scientific reason why such a weapon couldn't be produced.

Thinking the unthinkable `IF you have cellular characteristics that occur in a particular ethnic group ... and you could target these, obviously it would work,'' says Lars Beckman, a geneticist and president of the University of "Umea, Sweden.

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``We don't lack the fundamental knowledge,'' he says. ``The possibility has long been there. It just hasn't been exploited yet.''

Dr. Beckman and others interviewed expressed abhorrence at even the idea of an ethnic weapon.

``That's something we don't even think about,'' says Lt. Col. David Huxsoll, commander of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Md.

``I don't know anything about it. And I don't care to know anything about it,'' he says, growing visibly agitated. ``Nothing in my knowledge suggests that anyone is interested in producing them - even our adversaries.''

In Moscow, the response is the same.

``If I am against biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons, I am a million times more against this weapon,'' says Prof. Nikolai Enikolopian, director of the Soviet Institute of Synthetical Polymeric Materials in Moscow.

His revulsion is deep-seated and personal. ``I am an Armenian.... What if someone developed a weapon that could kill the Armenians and do no harm to the Turks?''

Professor Enikolopian acknowledges, however, that genetic research is developing at such a rapid pace that even a single cell can now provide abundant information about a person.

``We've seen nothing to date that looks like [ethnic weapons are] a credible possibility,'' says Graham Pearson, director of the British Chemical Defense Establishment at Porton Down. ``But look at what genetic science is doing today in comparison to what it was doing five or 10 years ago,'' he says. ``It's a burgeoning science.''

Indeed, researchers have already acquired a substantial body of knowledge about genetic variations between racial and ethnic groups in the course of routine medical research.

``The obvious example is sickle cell anemia,'' a disease prevalent among blacks, Colonel Huxsoll says.

A weapon in a glass?

PROF. Jorma Miettinen, a chemical weapons expert at the Department of Radiochemistry at the University of Helsinki, says researchers have already discovered ``an ethnic weapon, in a way.'' It is a substance that would, for example, sicken 10 percent of the Africans who drink it, but would leave Finns and other Scandinavians unaffected.

The substance? Milk.

Most children in Scandinavia are born with an enzyme that allows their bodies to utilize the lactose in milk. In other areas of the world, the enzyme is lacking in substantial numbers of the population.

Enzymes have long been spotted as one of the more vulnerable links in the life chain. Nerve gas specifically attacks enzymes, leading to a loss of control of body functions and, potentially, death. An ethnic weapon might, for example, attack certain kinds of enzymes and leave others alone.

These genetic differences have not escaped the notice of the Pentagon. Documents indicate that over the last three decades, the Defense Department has either conducted or funded research on diseases and disorders that occur more frequently among American blacks and American Indians.

In the 1950s, says Rutgers University faculty associate Leonard Cole, Pentagon researchers exposed dock workers at a naval installation in Norfolk, Va., to organisms meant to simulate a fungus disease that might affect blacks more than whites. There is, however, no evidence that the research yielded any practical results - or that it formed the basis for any experiments with offensive weapons.

A weapon of disinformation

`EVERYTHING that I've read on the `genetic weapon' struck me as disinformation ... to form additional moral distaste for the subject,'' says Joseph Douglass, a Pentagon consultant who has written extensively on chemical and biological warfare.

In fact, ``ethnic weapons'' have become a staple of Soviet propaganda. A favored tactic is to place a story in a friendly news outlet in the third world, then replay the story in the official Soviet news media. Radio Moscow's domestic service, for example, replayed a story in 1985 from the official Angolan government newspaper, claiming that white-ruled South Africa maintained a ``top-secret center for biological research'' in the Transvaal provincial town of Louis Trichardt. The report claimed that ethnic weapons aimed at ``the extermination of Africans and Asians'' were under development at the facility, with the help of the ``CIA and the Pentagon.''

Have such ``disinformation'' efforts halted since Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev came to power?

``No, not at all,'' says a US government official whose job it is to counter Soviet disinformation efforts.

At first blush, South Africa seems the only place where such munitions might have any conceivable utility. But one Pentagon official says that overlooks another obvious trouble spot.

``I would think [the Soviets] would have an incentive to develop them - against the Chinese,'' says Prescott Ward, biotechnology chief in the research division at the Army's Chemical Research, Development, and Engineering Center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.

A `whole new line' of agents

`FROM what I've read, [ethnic weapons are] more on the level of a `possibility,''' says Nikita Smidovich, a Soviet diplomat in the Foreign Ministry's Department on Peaceful Use of Outer Space and Nuclear Energy. ``But my scientists have told me we have no more than five years before the life sciences make a breakthrough, and we have a whole new line of agents.''

That, Mr. Smidovich says, only underscores the need for strengthening international agreements on biological and chemical warfare to ensure that such weapons remain in the realm of speculation.

Revulsion at the concept of `ethnic weapons' is almost universal. But that's where the consensus ends.

Neither scientists nor military personnel agree on whether it's possible to make such weapons. A Swedish geneticist says the `fundamental knowledge' to produce ethnic armaments exists. A British counterpart says such weapons are not yet a `credible possibility,' though genetics is a `burgeoning' science. Others dismiss all talk of such weapons as disinformation.

The fact is, routine medical research has already produced substantial knowledge about genetic variations among racial groups.

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