Czech Research Stirs Chemical Weapons Debate

Sharon Weinberger | 17.10.07


CALMATIVES AND OTHER Fentanyl-based drugs offer – at first glance – an attractive form of nonlethal weapons. But for opponents of their use, such drugs represent a dangerous slippery slope to chemical warfare, as this New Scientist article notes:

ChemToday the only people who are openly working on such drugs are a group of Czech anaesthetists based at the Institute of Experimental Medicine and Charles University Hospital in Prague, and the University of Defence in Hradec Kralove. In research presented at the European symposia on non-lethal weapons held in Ettlingen, Germany, in 2005 and again in May this year, they described some of the agents they have been using.

An important class are fentanyl-derived drugs. Fentanyl is an opioid, one of a large class of compounds that has a range of effects on the body, including knocking you out, relieving pain, and altering mood, as well as reducing breathing and heart rates. Other important classes are the benzodiazepines (such as Valium), which reduce anxiety and induce sleep, and the alpha2-agonists, which also induce sleep. Another option is the anaesthetic (and recreational drug) ketamine.

The Czech anaesthetists have tested combinations of these drugs on monkeys and human volunteers. Their preferred cocktail is the benzodiazepine midazolam (a staple of human anaesthesia), combined with the alpha2-agonist medetomidine and a low dose of ketamine. This, they say, produced something “very close to fully reversible immobilisation” with little or no effect on heart rate or breathing. Other combinations also produced reversible immobilisation but had side effects such as marked changes in blood pressure, heart rate and respiration.

In a statement to New Scientist, the Czechs maintain they are investigating non-lethal chemical weapons in case agents like these are used by terrorists. “Our research has a strictly defensive character,” they say.

Calmatives – except for domestic law enforcement – are banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention. But New Scientist notes that the Czech group’s conference papers cites the possibility of “new pharmacological non-lethal weapons” and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons is preparing to release a report expressing concerns about such work.

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