The Geneva-based organisation said the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention should be strengthened, including provisions for mandatory opening of research facilities and greater exchange of information and monitoring.

"There is a huge political emphasis on bioterrorism but the main risk is state programmes," Robin Coupland, medical
adviser to the International Committee of the Red Cross Mines-Arms unit, said in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.

He said terror groups had used traditional agents such as anthrax but there was no evidence that they were developing
new sophisticated viruses to mount biological warfare because it was difficult to do.

"If there is an attack, the source is most likely to be state programmes ... we must not take our eyes off state
programmes as potential users and suppliers," he said.

Avian flu

Although viruses endemic to Asia such as the avian flu and Sars could be potential biological warfare agents, Coupland said it would be "very difficult" to manipulate existing disease strains.

Red Cross says it is not easy to
manipulate existing strains

He said Western nations were more vulnerable to the threat of bioterrorism than Asian countries.

"All analyses suggest that the Western world is more likely to be subject of attacks by terror groups," he said.

"But if hostility breaks out, the whole world is on a level playing field."

About 40 regional and international scientists and policy experts are participating in two-day talks in Kuala Lumpur on potentially dangerous developments in biotechnology and the need to strengthen regulation to prevent hostile uses, the Red Cross said.

Real danger

Peter Herby, head of the Red Cross Mines-Arms unit, said the real danger lay in states developing new exotic biological agents under the guise of conducting research but using them for hostile purposes.

"Science is moving at a tremendous speed but the diplomatic process is generally frozen"

Peter Herby,
Head  of Red Cross Mines-Arms unit

He said emerging developments such as the alteration of existing disease viruses to make them more harmful and production of new agents to attack agriculture would make biological weapons more effective and difficult to detect.

Efforts to create a new protocol to strengthen the treaty have failed because some governments feel new regulations
are too intrusive, he said.

"Science is moving at a tremendous speed but the diplomatic process is generally frozen," he said.

"Political will is needed to make progress."