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Biological Warfare

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What is Biological Warfare?

Biological warfare, also known as germ warfare, is the use of any organism (bacteria, virus and other disease-causing organisms) or toxins found in nature, as a weapon of war. It is meant to incapacitate or kill an enemy. Biological warfare is a cause for concern because a successful attack could conceivably result in thousands, possibly even millions, of deaths and could cause severe disruptions to societies and economies. They can be released to one person and go on to spread to infect thousands or possibly even millions. Something of this nature would cause immediate panic, and economic shutdown - another powerful effect of such weapons.

biological war warfare weapons chemical weapons


Where have Biological weapons been used before?

The use of biological agents is not new, but before the 20th century, biological warfare took three main forms:

  • deliberate poisoning of food and water with infectious material,
  • use of microorganisms or toxins in a weapon system
  • use of biologically inoculated fabrics
  • native peoples in Aptos gave to Spaniards gifts of freshly cut flowers wrapped in leaves of poison oak

Biological warfare has been practised repeatedly throughout history. In 184 BC, Carthaginian leader Hannibal had clay pots filled with poisonous snakes and instructed his soldiers to throw the pots onto the decks of Pergamene ships.

During the Middle Ages victims of the Black Death were used for biological attacks, often by flinging their corpses and excrement over castle walls using catapults. The last known incident of using plague corpses for biological warfare occurred in 1710, when Russian forces attacked the Swedes by flinging plague-infected corpses over the city walls of Reval.

Several colonists settling in North and South America are now famous for waging biological warfare by distributing items infected with smallpox to indigenous populations. Francisco Pizarro distributed clothing infected with smallpox to South American peoples in the 16th century, Hernán Cortés infected the Aztec population in the early 16th century, Jeffrey Amherst distributed smallpox infected blankets to Native Americans sympathetic to France during the French and Indian War, and Captain Ecuyer of the Royal Americans distributed blankets and handkerchiefs to Native Americans in 1763.

During the United States Civil War, General Sherman reported that Confederate forces shot farm animals in ponds upon which the Union depended for drinking water.


Use of such weapons was banned in international law by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention extended the ban to almost all production, storage and transport. It is, however, believed that since the signing of the convention the number of countries capable of producing such weapons has increased.

During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army conducted human experimentation on thousands, mostly Chinese. In military campaigns, the Japanese army used biological weapons on Chinese soldiers and civilians.

Research carried out in the United Kingdom during World War II left a Scottish Island contaminated with anthrax for the next 48 years.

Considerable research on the topic was performed by the United States, the Soviet Union , and probably other major nations throughout the Cold War era, though it is generally believed that such weapons were never used. In 1972, the U.S. signed the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention, which banned "development, production, stockpiling, and use of microbes or their poisonous products except in amounts necessary for protective and peaceful research."

In 1986, the U.S. government spent $42 million on research for infectious diseases and toxins, ten times more money than was spent in 1981. The money went to 24 U.S. universities in hopes of developing strains on anthrax, Rift Valley fever, Japanese encephalitis, tularemia, shigella, botulin, and Q fever. When the Biology Department at MIT voted to refuse Pentagon funds for biotech research, the Reagan administration forced it to reverse its decision by threatening to cut off other funds.

There have been reports that United States Army has been developing weapons-grade anthrax spores at a biological and chemical weapons facility in Utah at least since 1992. However, the United States had and maintains a stated policy of never using biological weapons under any circumstances.

1984 Rajneeshee Salomenalla Attack

In a small town of The Dalles in Oregon, followers of the Bhagwan Shri Rajneesh (the Rajneeshee Cult) attempted to control a local election by infecting salad bars with Salmonella. The attack caused about 900 people to get sick. It is considered the first ever bioterrorism case in the US history.

2001 Anthrax Attack

In September and October of 2001, several cases of anthrax broke out in the United States in the 2001 anthrax attacks, caused deliberately. This was a well-publicized act of bioterrorism. It motivated efforts to define biodefense and biosecurity, where more limited definitions of biosafety had focused on unintentional or accidental impacts of agricultural and medical technologies.

How could they be distributed?

There are multiple ways in which they could be distributed. Russia (the USSR) developed techniques using missiles and bombs to spread the deadly pathogens. Anthrax was recently deployed using the post offices. Al Queda may have attempted to acquire crop-dusting planes, which could be used to spread pathogens to millions. Terrorists could release them in ventilation systems to spread them across an office building.

However they are spread, infectious pathogens could soon be passed to others, leading to enormous casualties thousands of times greater than the original number infected.

biological warfare weapons bio terrorism

Which are the most Lethal?

These are biological agents with both a high potential for adverse public health impact and that also have a serious potential for large-scale dissemination. The Category A agents are anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulism, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fevers.
  • Anthrax : Anthrax is a bacteria with a highly resistant spore form. It is highly infectious and lethal when inhaled. It is a one-time agent that does not spread from one person to another. An anthrax vaccine does exist but requires many injections and has enough side-effects that it is considered unsuitable for general use.
  • Smallpox : Smallpox is a highly contagious virus. It transmits easily through the atmosphere and has a high mortality rate (up to 30%). Smallpox was eliminated in the world in the 1970s thanks to a worldwide vaccination program. However, some virus are still available in Russian and American laboratories. It is also believed it could be available in other labs.
  • Botulism: Botulism is one the deadliest toxins caused by a bacteria. Botulism causes respiratory failure and paralysis.
  • Ebola: Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever. It is extremely lethal, with no cure. The symptoms are profuse bleeding from the orifices.
  • Plague: Plague is a highly contagious bacteria. It causes a type of pneumonia and may be fatal.
  • Marburg: Marburg is a viral hemorrhagic disease. It is extremely lethal, with no cure.
  • Tularemia: Tularemia is a bacteria, responsible for non-lethal but extremely incapacitating diseases (weight loss, fever, headaches, and often pneumonia).

The United States' biological warfare programme began during WWII. But, it came to a halt in 1969, when President Nixon reviewed the program, decided it was wrong, and ordered the destruction of all weapons. Part of the decision was due to the availability in nuclear defense, which, it was thought, made it unnecessary to develop biological weapons since it would make it possible for other countries to develop them as well.

Today, several countries have or are developing biological warfare programmes. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, more than ten countries have, or are developing biological warfare programs, among which, The United States of America, Russia, Israel, Egypt, China, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea.

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