Fears that the military may use gene engineering to make biological weapons has caused a National Institutes of Health committee to tell the NIH director that such work is prohibited by a 1972 treaty outlawing the production and use of biological weapons.
The committee was not responding to certain knowledge that the Army is using gene engineering for biological weaponry, but committee members said they wanted to raise the issue publicly because of rumors and reports that the military is interested in going ahead with such research.
Committee member and Nobel laureate David Baltimore said, "We have taken cognizance of the potential danger of using recombinant DNA gene engineering to make biological weapons. In case the NIH director has not thought about these issues, the committee wanted to bring them to his attention, with the implication that he might" take action such as issuing a statement on the subject.
One thing that triggered the committee action was that the Army recently asked the National Academy of Sciences NAS to study some problems in defending against biological weapons. The appropriate committee of NAS refused to do any work that might be classified and also refused to do any work on biological warfare.
The NAS committee did agree to accept work looking into gene engineering techniques for combating chemical warfare.
Dr. William Beisel, in charge of gene engineering research for the Army at Fort Detrick, Md., yesterday told the NIH committee that the Army is conducting no classified research using gene engineering.
The NIH committee, called the Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee, yesterday defeated, 17 to 2, an apparently stronger action that would have changed federal rules to include a new ban on using gene engineering techniques to make weapons.
Instead, the committee voted, 15 to 5, to send a letter to NIH Director James Wyngaarden advising him that the 1972 biological weapons treaty to which the United States is a signatory includes a prohibition of gene engineering methods for "the development of microbial or other biological agents, or toxins, of types or in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes."
The NIH committee oversees federal guidelines which govern gene engineering research in the United States. The issue of gene research in biological warfare came up when committee member Richard Goldstein of Harvard and Richard P. Novick of the Public Health Research Institute of New York wrote to the committee, urging it to act because "the obvious potential of molecular cloning has led to a substantial renewal of military interest" in making biological weapons.