2003 April 20 Sunday
United States Turns Down South African Bioweapons Offer

South African bioweapons scientist Daan Goosen offered to sell to the United States government the full collection of diseases and antidotes that the former white minority South Africa government had developed under its Project Coast bioweapons program. The Washington Post has written

From among hundreds of flasks in his Pretoria lab, the South African scientist picked a man-made strain that was sure to impress: a microbial Frankenstein that fused the genes of a common intestinal bug with DNA from the pathogen that causes the deadly illness gas gangrene. "This will show the Americans what we are capable of," Goosen said at the time.

The US government turned down this offer (they wanted $5 million and 19 visas to come work in the United States) and reported it to the authorities in South African. One argument advanced for turning down the offer was that these pathogens were created with 10 year old biotechnology and that many people could easily create similar pathogens today. Also, the US officials felt they should report these activities to the current South African government because the US has friendly relations with it.

The US government made a foolish decision. First of all, the existence of these pathogens is now more widely known and people from other countries are trying to get them. Also, the scientists in South Africa have just had their market value as bioweapons development scientists increased by the resulting publicity. Plus, it sends a discouraging message to other scientists in other countries who entertain the idea of approaching agents of the United States to make similar offers.

The United States ought to be scooping up bioweapons scientists and other WMD scientists the world over. The biggest potential would be that private groups would start developing bioweapons in order to be able to blackmail the US to buy them. But a deal like this one might have been able to be kept secret had the US decided to go through with it.

Update: Joby Warrick of the Washington Post has a second article with additional information about the South African bioweapons program. It is likely that multiple former scientists in the South African bioweapons program retained samples of various bacterial strains the program developed.

Goosen acknowledged in an interview that scientists had retained copies of bacterial strains to continue work on vaccines and antidotes with commercial applications. Goosen said he ended up with scores of such strains in his private laboratory, a collection he attempted unsuccessfully to sell to the United States last May. Goosen did not destroy them, he said, because he considered them vital to his continued research and vaccine business.

This suggests that the purchase of Goosen's collection of samples may not have done much good. Also, it is quite possible that the strains have already been sold to other governments and perhaps even to private groups. Many of the pathogens the South Africans developed were for the purpose of assassination. They do not appear to pose as much of a threat as a source of a large epidemic outbreak.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 April 20 09:38 AM  US Foreign Weapons Proliferation Control

Michael said at April 20, 2003 12:47 PM:

There is no act of stupidity beyond the U.S. government.One has to wonder,though,how much State Dept. dislike of the Bush and co. was at play here.
No doubt various agencies and players are now making bids for the recipes.

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