Pubdate: Sun, 28 Jun 1998
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Author: Nicholas Rufford


BRITAIN is engaged in a secret attempt to  crush the worldwide heroin trade
with  biological warfare. The project involves spies, scientists and former
Soviet germ warfare experts.

At a secure research laboratory in Uzbekistan, central Asia, the scientists
are developing a virulent strain of a fungus West's that destroys opium
poppies, the raw secret material for heroin.  They have drawn up plans for
manufacturing Opium War enough fungus to infect thousands of acres of
poppies in the Golden Crescent of central Asia, the source of 90% of
Britain's heroin.

Bumper harvests there have recently flooded  Britain and western Europe
with cheap  heroin. The street price has halved and port and airport
seizures have increased sharply.  The fungus may also be used in the Golden
Triangle opium-growing regions of southeast Asia and in South America, the
sources of most of the heroin sold in the United States.

Senior officials in the British and American governments, which are sharing
the cost, believe the project will give them a vital advantage in the war
against heroin.

A British expert, who has worked with the Ministry of Agriculture,
Fisheries and Food, is supervising the research and has prepared a report
after visiting the laboratory this month. Intelligence services on both
sides of the Atlantic have been involved from the planning stage and may
have a role in the deployment of the fungus, which could be ready to use
next year.

Although the fungus can kill opium plants, a more subtle strategy has been
developed to frustrate growers. If the fungus is spread in low doses, the
plants develop but with little opium inside. The growers will therefore
expend money and effort cultivating a useless crop.

The work is being carried out at Uzbekistan's state genetics institute,
which manufactured germ agents for destroying thefood crops of the Soviet
Union's enemies during the cold war. The Foreign Office and the American
State Department have contributed $500,000. They will also supply
specialist equipment to the laboratory and train its scientists in mass
production of the fungus.

About 30 researchers, some veterans of secret Soviet biological weapons
programmes, have been employed to refine virulent new strains and to test
them on locally grown opium.

Rustam Makhmudovich, the institute's deputy director, confirmed that the
fungus had already been used in trials to destroy poppy fields in
Uzbekistan's mountainous eastern region.

More work is needed to satisfy the British and the Americans that the
fungus is safe. No harmful side effects have been found and the strain
attacks only opium poppies. The advantage of the fungus over chemical
herbicides is that it reproduces and spreads of its own accord, leaving
other plant and animal life unaffected. A confidential report states:
"Experiments in both controlled environments and the field showed
conclusively the fungus was able to kill the opium poppy in relatively low

The fungus can be sprayed by aircraft ontopoppy fields. Once infected,
healthy poppies  quickly develop lesions that eventual cover the whole
plant. The infection spread through the crop by the release of million of
airborne spores from the dying poppies.

Some United Nations officials, however, fear the West could be accused of
waging germ warfare and that fundamentalist Islamic regimes in Afghanistan
and Iran could exploit the issue to win support from more moderate Islamic

Senior staff in the UN's drug control programme (UNDCP) brokered the deal
with the Uzbekistan government last year and are handling the project to
avoid accusations of western political interference. Field staff and
consultants have received instructions from the UNDCP's headquarters in
Vienna not to discuss the work.

Copyright 1998 Times Newspapers Ltd.

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