A leading expert on chemical and biological arms control called on Wednesday for urgent efforts to stop new mind-altering drugs developed for medical purposes from being adopted by the military for use in warfare.
In an article in the U.S. journal Nature, British academic Malcolm Dando said civilian researchers in many countries seemed largely unaware of the danger and urged quick action to adapt a key arms pact to head it off.
"In the past 20 years, modern warfare has changed from predominantly large-scale clashes of armies to messy civil strife," wrote Prof. Dando, citing the Bosnian conflict of the mid-1990s and current fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Chemical agents and even gene therapy being developed in civilian life science laboratories "are particularly suited to this style of warfare; it is not hard to find people in the military world who think they would be useful," he declared.
Prof. Dando, professor of International Security at Britain's Bradford University, is a regular participant in UN-sponsored arms conferences and is due in Geneva next week for a meeting of experts on the 1972 biological weapons pact.
But in Nature, he said attention should be focused on changing the 1993 global Chemical Weapons Convention.
"The CWC urgently needs modifying if it is to continue to help ensure that the modern life sciences are not used for hostile purposes," he wrote. Most pressing was how the pact dealt with non-lethal chemicals developed for law enforcement.
Currently the CWC, which went into effect in 1997 and to which 188 countries are signatories, bans all chemical weapons but excludes those used for law enforcement and riot control.
"'Law enforcement' could be taken by some to cover more than domestic riot control, which in certain circumstances would make it legal for the military to use agents such as fentanyl," said Prof. Dando, referring to a powerful painkilling drug.
Fentanyl, Prof. Dando said, was deployed in a still unrevealed mixture by Russian special forces in 2002 to subdue Chechen militants who had seized a Moscow theatre.
But its use led to the deaths of more than 120 hostages among the theatregoers and Russian commandoes who went into the theatre with protective gear shot dead the incapacitated hostage-takers.
Other agents being developed, said Prof. Dando, include oxytocin, dubbed the "love and cuddle" chemical, which induces trust and whose emergence "opens up the possibility of a drug that could be used to manipulate people's emotions in a military context."
Although some backers of this idea argue that using incapacitating drugs as weapons could stop people being killed in conflicts, the scientist said, historical evidence like that of the Russian siege suggested otherwise.
Prof. Dando said he was alarmed by what he called a lack of engagement with the issue among life scientists whom he had questioned in some 13 countries around the world. "They are just not taking the problem on board," he said.
Prof. Dando was not optimistic that changes to the CCW, next up for review in 2013, could be agreed by then. "It is a long diplomatic process and it is not clear that even governments fully recognize the problem," he said in a telephone interview.