Combating civilian chemical warfare

The nerve toxin Serin, mustard gas and how best to protect civilians and medical personel on site.
20 November 2013

Interview with 

Dr David Jett, Director of the National Institute of Health, CounterACT Research


Pedestrians walking in a city


Hannah -   Over the last 2000 years, many chemical weapons have been Crowd Walkingdeveloped from tear and mustard gas which were used during World War 1, to the more recent civilian sarin attacks including in Tokyo.  I spoke to Dr. David Jett, Director of the National Institute of Health CounterACT Research Programme in America.

David -   In the '95 attack, there was a terrorist organisation called Aum Shinrikyo that released sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway.  Thousands were exposed, resulted in many short and long term really debilitating effects and even 12 deaths.  I think one of the most disturbing results of this attack, there are long lasting neurological and other kinds of effects showing up even today in some of these victims.  We're concerned about reducing some of the long term kinds of effects.

Hannah -   And there's been reports that even in the last few months of these gases being in Syria on civilians.  So, how can you research into the type of thing that we can do to help protect people against such chemical warfare?

David -   Yeah, so it turns out, we have a couple of drugs that are used that work pretty well for these types of compounds.  We are developing more effective drugs that can fatalise, prevent some of the seizures and paralysis caused by these compounds by blocking receptors within the body and so forth.  There's been some reports that some of the physicians that treated folks in Syria themselves got sick and some even died because some of the off gassing from the victims. And so, that's so that's another concern on how are we going to decontaminate, not only a site and also some of the victims so that medical personnel can treat them.

Hannah -   Scientists, if they are developing a chemical that's used as a pesticide for example and then it turns out that somebody starts using it in warfare to kill people - civilians.  How much do you think science should be accountable for this type of thing and is there anything that a research scientist should be aware of, should have to take some responsibility for?

David -   Yes, that's an excellent question and in fact, that's what happened with our organophosphorus nerve agents that a scientist was working on these as pesticides.  Once they found out that they're very toxic to humans, under the - this is during World War II under the German military - developed these into even more toxic nerve agents.  

What we have in place at least here in the US is, we have lots of policies under what we call Dual Use Research. When you are working on something like a very toxic chemical or a very potent biological agent that could be developed into some sort of chemical weapon you have to be very, very careful about how you conduct that research and the time and information you disseminate about that research.


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