GENEVA (Reuters) - The United States called on Wednesday for closer international cooperation to prevent terrorist groups from developing or using biological weapons, a threat it said was growing.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said countries must strengthen their ability to detect and respond to suspicious outbreaks of infectious disease that could be caused by pathogens falling into the wrong hands.
"Unfortunately the ability of terrorists and other non-state actors to develop and use these weapons is growing. Therefore this must be a renewed focus of our efforts," she said in a speech in Geneva.
"Because there are warning signs and they are too serious to ignore."
She said Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula had urged "brothers with degrees in microbiology or chemistry ... to develop a weapon of mass destruction."
A crude but effective terrorist weapon can be made by using a small sample of widely available pathogens, inexpensive equipment and "college-level chemistry and biology," she added.
States must do a better job of reporting on measures being taken to guard against the misuse of biological weapons and scientists should exchange views on threats, Clinton said.
She was addressing a global conference held every five years to review the Biological Weapons Convention banning biological and toxin weapons, which has been ratified by 165 states.
Iran's ambassador Seyed Mohammad Reza Sajjadi, whose country has ratified the 1975 pact, said the meeting should call on all non-parties, and in particular Israel, to join without delay.
Clinton said the United States saw no need to negotiate a verification regime for the pact as it is extremely difficult to detect biological material and research can serve dual purposes, both military and civilian. Global negotiations 10 years ago failed to agree on a verification mechanism.
"False verification is worse than no verification, in the sense that it gives you this sense of security that is not warranted," a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters.
Clinton called for maximizing the benefits of scientific research and minimizing the risks that it will be misused.
"For example, the emerging gene synthesis industry is making genetic material more widely available. This obviously has many benefits for research but it could also potentially be used to assemble the components of a deadly organism," she said.
There was a need to balance the need for scientific innovation with the need to guard against such risks, she said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Arshad Mohammed; editing by Andrew Roche)