“Dr. Death”–Head of South Africa’s Biological & Chemical Weapons Program

Cape Town, South Africa
Cape Town, South Africa Credit: NASA

The South African chemical and biological warfare program, called “Project Coast,” was established in 1981 under the apartheid regime, violating the Biological Toxins and Weapons Convention of 1972.  The project’s researchers studied Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), Vibrio colerae (cholera), salmonella and Botulinum toxin, in addition to a variety of chemical agents, such as MDMA (ecstasy), PCP, muscle relaxants and nerve agents.  Unlike the chemical agents, the biological agents were not produced on a large scale and were neither weaponized nor meant for combat.   Instead, the program focused on using biological agents for assassination of those who challenged the government.  The agents produced were used by the South African Defense Force and police.   The secretive Project Coast had no civilian and extremely limited military oversight.  Only the former head of Project Coast, Dr. Wouter Basson, knew the agents being studied, how they were used and how much they cost.   Dr. Basson was nicknamed “Dr. Death,” and allegedly arranged the killing of many political dissidents.  In one case, he arranged for the South West African People’s Organization’s (SWAPO) water supply to be contaminated with V colerae, killing 200 people.  Court testimonies indicate that Dr. Basson directed work on contraceptives, with the intent to deliver them to unknowing individuals.  Project Coast ended in 1993 due to diplomatic pressure from the United States and the United Kingdom. 

The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s investigation of Project Coast in 1998, alongside Dr. Basson’s separate criminal trial, shed light on Dr. Basson’s covert activities with, and the corrupt nature of this program.  Dr. Basson was acquitted on all 64 criminal charges made against him due, in part, to a general amnesty and jurisdictional issues.  The charges included several counts of drug trafficking (MDMA), theft, fraud and 12 counts of murder.   Dr. Basson is currently a private practice cardiologist in Cape Town, South Africa and is under investigation by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA).  Dr. Basson claimed the council was biased against him, but South African Pretoria High Court recently found the claim to be unjustified, prompting the continuation of the investigation.  If the HPCSA’s investigation concludes that Dr. Basson’s conduct, as director of Project Coast, was unethical, he could lose his license to practice medicine.  Pretoria News reports that council’s allegations against him include that his work with Project Coast went beyond defensive measures with the creation of “…cigarettes contaminated with anthrax and milk tainted with botulism,” and that “it was unethical for a medical doctor to be involved in a chemical and biological warfare programme[sic], without the association’s approval.”

The activities of Project Coast remind us that too much secrecy and compartmentalization of activities under one individual without real oversight, can lead to massive corruption and immoral activities.  This helps us recognize the importance of transparency and collaboration between government scientific institutions.

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