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Archive - Thursday, 9 January 2003
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The sober truth about ricin
Yesterday's shock-horror headlines would have us believe Britain is approaching Doomsday. But a team of Sussex University experts aren't convinced.
The front pages warned 250,000 Of Us Could Have Died, Poison Gang On The Loose, Killer With No Antidote.
The Daily Mirror went the whole hog and plastered a skull and crossbones on a map of our doomed island, its headline screaming: It's Here ... Can We Cope?
The panic was prompted by the discovery of the poison ricin in a flat in London.
Six men, said to be North Africans with links to Osama bin Laden's Al Quaida network, are being questioned by anti-terrorist police about the find.
Meanwhile the nerves of the British public, particularly those living or working in London, are being tested to the limit.
Commentators have been emphasising the ease with which terrorists can get hold of ricin, its potential deadliness - and the fact there is no vaccine or antidote.
The London Underground or a crowded station has been suggested as likely targets but fears have been raised fanatics armed with ricin could strike anywhere.
There are suspicions a second chemical weapons cell remains on the loose, preparing to unleash the toxin where it will do most damage.
But researchers at the University of Sussex say chemical and biological weapons are still some way from becoming the terrorists' weapons of choice.
They are more likely to view ricin as an effective method of causing panic than a means of causing mass casualties.
The university is at the forefront of research into the international conventions on chemical and biological weapons as part of a transatlantic programme in association with Harvard University in America.
The team of three men do not carry out lab work. They examine international treaties on biological and chemical weaponry and monitor the diplomacy and negotiations surrounding them, suggesting ways they could be improved.
Daniel Feakes is a research fellow at the Sussex-Harvard programme on chemical and biological weapons at Sussex University.
He believes the threat to public safety posed by Sunday's find is being blown out of proportion.
He said: "In the Second World War, the UK attempted to develop a ricin bomb but found it wasn't effective.
"That seems to be the general conclusion. It might be a very lethal chemical but actually getting it to a lot of people would be very difficult.
"It has been used in the past to assassinate individuals and it's quite effective in that situation.
"But spreading it around somewhere like the Tube or a shopping centre would be very difficult.
"It might be quite easy to get hold of but it's turning that into an actual weapon that is hard.
"In this case, there's a danger it's getting blown out of proportion. On its own it can be lethal in very small doses but saying it could wipe out a quarter of a million people is taking things a bit too far.
"There are so many factors to take into account - how the wind is blowing, how old people are, what their immune systems are like.
"In this case the discovery was made in a one-bedroom flat and they seem to be talking about traces of ricin. From what I've heard it wasn't a huge amount.
"It is certainly worrying that terrorists may be thinking of using chemical and biological weapons and that they are experimenting with them.
"But they've perhaps picked this because it is easy to get hold of.
"It may not be particularly effective as a weapon but look at the effect is has caused, the panic. That is almost as effective as if they had killed one or two people with it.
"In the early Nineties, the Iraqis are understood to have done some experiments with ricin as part of their chemical and biological weapons programme. But it appears they found the results to be indifferent. Whether that's true or not it is difficult to say.
"Terrorists are certainly interested in this type of weaponry - look at the anthrax letters last year in the US and the sarin gas underground attacks in Tokyo in 1995.
"But it is difficult for them to get their hands on these kinds of things and turn them into a reliable, effective weapon. Some of these groups haven't mastered that yet.
"It seems they would rather rely on more predictable weapons such as explosives. Basically, they prefer to stick to what they know."