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Russians Fear Targeted Bioweapons, Ban Human Tissue Export

The Russian Federal Customs Service (FSB) has banned the export from the country of all human medical biological materials, from hair to blood samples, as of May 28th. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the ban was prompted by a report submitted to Vladimir Putin that alleges "genetically engineered biological weapons" are under development in the West.

The report was prepared by the FSB after investigation of the medical facilities in Russia that participate in research trials in association with Western pharmaceutical companies and universities.

According to the source, the report thus characterizes the situation in the market for clinical trials: several large Western medical centers that receive shipments of biological materials from Russia are said to be involved in the development of "genetically engineered biological weapons" for use against the Russian population. The list of organizations purportedly working on the project includes the Harvard School of Public Health, the American International Health Alliance, the Environment and Natural Resources Division of the US Department of Justice, the Swedish Karolinska Institute and Agency for International Development, and the Indian Genome Institute. Kommersant's source reported that the report contains a wealth of fantastical details about the development of "ethnically oriented" biological weapons capable of rendering Russia's population sterile and even killing it off.

Many of the institutions named in the report already deny any participation in weapons research. The ban is also being protested by the many Russian institutions that participate in medical testing and research. At present, about 28,000 Russians take part, mostly by agreeing to be test subjects for pharmaceutical companies. The clinical trial market in Russia is worth as much as $150 million annually.

The idea that it might be possible to create bioweapons that are specifically targeted to particular populations has been explored by science fiction writers. Frank Herbert, in his 1982 novel The White Plague, writes about a molecular biologist who loses his wife and family to an IRA bomb, and engineers a plague virus that targets and kills only women.

More recently, sf writer Greg Bear wrote about the same concerns in his newly released book Quantico. In the novel, investigators become concerned that terrorist organizations are developing bioweapons that target only specific populations. His fictional investigators make use of a hand-held biohazard analyzer called a "WAGD" to detect traces:

She had yet to bring out her WAGD - pronounced Wag-Dee, for Wright Assay Germ Detector - a biohazard analyzer the size and shape of a large magic marker.

...She reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a WAGD, hiding most of it in her palm and up her sleeve, then swiftly uncapped it ... and ran the moist gel tip along the inside... She capped and pocketed the device...
(Read more about the WAGD biohazard analyzer.)

This fictional device now has a real-life counterpart - NASA's LOCAD-PTS Handheld Microorganism Detector.

Find out more about the novel that anticipates Russia's concerns in this Interview With Greg Bear on Quantico; read more about the ban at Kommersant.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 6/1/2007)

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