The Pentagon has approved the development of a genetically modified "super-anthrax" bacteria to test US defenses against biological attack, overriding concerns that the research could violate a 1972 germ warfare treaty, it was reported yesterday,
According to Milton Leitenberg, an expert on biological warfare at the University of Maryland, the defense department had intended to update its vaccine before the September 11 attacks, but postponed the project after the news was leaked to the press. After September 11 the plan was "reapproved", Mr Leitenberg said.
The New York Times said the defense intelligence agency had been told to develop a potentially more potent form of anthrax to test the vaccine which the US plans to supply to its own soldiers. The Pentagon did not respond to requests for comment yesterday.
Russian scientists first engineered the superbug in the early 1990s and by 1997 are reported to have produced a strain which overcame their own vaccine in hamsters.
It was that "breakthrough" that raised US anxiety about the nation's anthrax defenses
The launch of the US development project had been delayed for several weeks while Pentagon lawyers tried to decide whether the project would represent an infringement of the 1972 biological weapons convention.
According to the New York Times, the lawyers have decided that the superbug project is "fully consistent" with the germ treaty. The treaty allows states to make and stockpile biological weapons if they have "justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes".
John Wolfsthal, a specialist on proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the definition of that clause was open to interpretation.
"The question of intent has a lot to do with it, and that's where the law gets fuzzy," he said.
Mr Wolfsthal added that the scope of the project was also a factor in distinguishing between offensive and defensive research work.
He doubted there would be a significant international outcry over the Pentagon proposals in the context of the current anti-terrorism campaign.
But only two months before the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington the US rejected a draft agreement designed to enforce the ban on biological weapons - to the dismay of many of Washington's allies - after seven years of negotiations.
US objections were based on the potential threat to corporate intellectual property rights and to national security, implied by the international inspections regime included in the agreement.
The chief US representative at the negotiations, Donald Mahley, said unlimited visits to pharmaceutical or defense installations by foreign inspectors could be used to gather strategic or commercial intelligence.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001