Biological warfare used to be the stuff of movies (The Andromeda Strain , Outbreak , 12 Monkeys , Mission Impossible 2 ) and books (The Coming Plague , The Hot Zone , The Cobra Event , Rainbow Six ). But during the Gulf War (1990-91), the U.S. considered it real enough to vaccinate its soldiers against an anthrax-based biological weapon produced by Iraqi scientists.1
Biological weapons (BWs), defined as infectious bacterial or viral agents used to harm others, have a long history2: Primitive peoples used arrows poisoned with biological toxins from animal and plant extracts, and also poisoned their enemy’s water supply with fecal extracts. Medieval warriors besieging the Russian city of Kaffa catapulted plague-infected corpses over its walls. Europeans knowingly gave smallpox- or measles-infected blankets to Native Americans, who had no resistance to these diseases. BWs reportedly were used during WWII. Over time, BWs have come to include biologically derived toxins and poisons.3 Among the most dangerous agents are smallpox, botalinum toxin (Btx), anthrax, and ricin.4 Some are highly lethal, while others incapacitate the host or primarily harm animals and plants. Today, many countries are believed to fund such research.
Japan started the first offensive biological weapon program in 1918 with Unit 731, a special army unit dedicated to BWs production and experimentation. In 1931, it moved to Man-churia, China, where it conducted experiments on Chinese people and actually attacked several cities with different BWs until 1942. At least 10,000 Chinese died during those experiments. In 1942, the U.S. learned of this program and started its own. By 1969, it had weaponized the agents causing anthrax, botulism, tularemia, brucellosis, Venezuelan equine encephalitis, and Q fever.5
In 1969, President Nixon declared that the U.S. unilaterally renounced first use of lethal or incapacitating chemical agents and weapons, and unconditionally renounced all methods of biological warfare. Henceforth, the U.S.’s biological program would research only strictly defined measures of defense, such as immunization. All stockpiles were ordered to be destroyed. The U.S. and 165 other countries have signed the Biolog-ical and Toxic Weapons Convention (BWC), and 144 countries have ratified it.6
But the BWC cannot be effective if it cannot be enforced. For example, the USSR signed it but continued its programs. In 1979, at least 66 people died after an accidental anthrax release from a plant near Sverdlovsk. Soviet authorities denied any BWs production, but years later President Yeltsin confirmed that anthrax was being researched at that time.7 Yeltsin further asserted that all such programs were stopped and that stockpiles were being removed. However, evidence suggests that part of the offensive programs continue.8
The USSR’s demise (1991) led to the spread of BWs production information. According to Margolis, some of the 60,000 scientists and technicians formerly employed by its biological warfare establishment reportedly are working in Iraq, Israel, Iran, Syria, and Serbia, all of which already have extensive arsenals of biowarfare weapons. India also may have received substantial Russian aid.9
Iraq announced its BWs program in 1995. Fortunately, such agents were not used during the Gulf War, possibly due to fear of nuclear retaliation. The UN destroyed whatever it could find of Iraq’s BWs program in 1996.10 China, Iran, Taiwan, Syria, Cuba, North Korea, Egypt, Israel, and Libya are suspected of having similar programs.11
In the eyes of nations or groups that put their own ideology or interests above all other considerations, including human life and future generations, such weapons might appear attractive. Consider the following points:
BWs probably are more effective on a per-quantity basis than more conventional weapons. Just 8 ounces of Type-A botalinum toxin, “the most lethal substance known,” could kill every living creature on Earth.12 One gram of anthrax contains 100 million lethal doses, and a few kilograms can kill as many people as died at Hiroshima.13 Generally speaking, several kilos of a biological agent can have the impact of several tons of nerve gas. BWs are extremely effective because they are highly toxic and are living organisms that multiply in and infect target hosts.
Producing chemical and nuclear weapons requires sophisticated equipment and highly trained personnel; BWs require only a modest level of education and investment. Kathleen C. Bailey, a former assistant director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, is “absolutely convinced” that a major biological arsenal could be built with $10,000 worth of equipment in a 15x15 ft. room.14
To infect 1 sq. km., it would cost approximately $2,000 using conventional weapons, $800 using nuclear weapons, $600 using chemical weapons, and $1 using biological weapons. Any nation with a reasonably advanced pharmaceutical and medical industry can mass produce BWs.15
Weaponized anthrax probably could be produced in a small house, apartment or RV for less than $100,000. The program could be run by perhaps less than a dozen technicians with the equivalent of a BS degree led by one supervisor with a Ph.D. The relevant basic knowledge for most biological weapons-grade microbes is freely available, and equipment and chemicals can be obtained from dozens of suppliers.16
A live weapon needs only a small sample for mass production. Some agents exist naturally in the soil or can be ordered from a biotech company. Various researchers have claimed that Saddam Hussein used the latter method to acquire his original anthrax culture.17 BWs are hard are to detect in the production phase, for most bioweapons can be produced in hidden and/or mobile conditions.18 When detected, the place can be quickly cleaned and transformed into an ordinary pharmaceutical research or biology lab. Furthermore, such anti-terrorist sensor systems as metal detectors, x-ray machines, trained dogs, or neutron bombardment cannot detect BWs.19
Damage is confined to people (and possibly other living things), thus leaving infrastructure intact20; the sheer terror caused by such a threat21; ensuing governmental panic22; and the time lag between release and detection makes identification and apprehension very remote.23 But BWs also have certain drawbacks, among them:
The need for effective delivery. Most biological agents infect through inhalation. Too-large particles are caught in the respiratory system; too-small particles are exhaled. To stay in the lungs, the particle should be between 1 and 5 Angstroms. In fact, a BW attempt in Japan failed because the dissemination tool was ineffective.24
Even if disseminated, the desired result is far from certain. Most biological materials, including spores, are destroyed by exposure to ultraviolet light and drying. Agents released in the air may disperse in unexpected ways due to changes in wind patterns. Rain may wash the agents out of the air before they reach their target. Also, BWs can turn around and infect those who released them.
BWs’ live nature is a two-edged sword. The disease spreads easily, but no one can know when it is safe to live in the infected area. An agent’s lifespan is a major concern, for it can become part of the local microflora and thus threaten any military follow-up activities for an unknown length of time.25
BWs have two main uses: on the battlefield and on a civilian population. Battlefield Use: BWs have several drawbacks here, such as high dependence upon external conditions, delayed effects, possible self-infection, uncertainty over when an infected area is safe enough to return to, and neutralization by vaccination or protective clothing. Use on a Civilian Population: This is the true horror, for civilians would not be prepared for such an attack and the resulting epidemic would be very hard to control. If the attack is covert, authorities would be unable to identify the source and unaware of the attack until infected people start showing up in the hospitals. When they finally identified the agent, the infection would be widespread. If a vaccine did not exist, health professionals would be unable to offer much help. The U.S. considers itself very vulnerable to such an attack and is working to protect itself.
Given that BWs are not hard to obtain, why have they not been used on civilian populations so far? The main reasons seem to be fear of a reprisal attack and of alienating the public to one’s cause. Potential users apparently feel that the disadvantages far outweigh the advantages. But as they may not always feel that way, the U.S. and other nations are studying how to prepare their national health care infrastructures and personnel to deal with such an event.
On July 26, 2001, the Washington Post announced that the U.S. would withdraw from the BWC on the grounds that a newly proposed protocol “would not prevent cheating, and could encourage espionage against the U.S. pharmaceutical and chemical industries.” One wonders if other countries will follow suit.
Many Web sites discuss this vital issue, such as: www.brad.ac.uk/acad/sbtwc/: strengthening the BWC; www.cbiac.apgea.army.mil/about_us/general.html: Department of Defense focal point for data related to Chemical Warfare/Chemical and Biological Defense technology; www.asanltr.com/: specializes in nuclear, biological, and chemical defense and protection issues; www.geocities.com/nbclinks/: gateway for nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare data on the Web; and www.seanet.com/~gtate/cwoff.htm: gives access to various chemical warfare-related Web pages.
All religions condemn such horrific weapons on the grounds that all life is inherently sacred and worthy of respect. However, realpolitik, greed for profits, ideological conflict, and the need to assert or maintain control of natural and other resources deafens many governments and people to the appeals of religion.
Unfortunately, one nation’s and even one group’s decision to head down this path causes others to follow for the sake of self-preservation. We are well-advanced on this path, and no one can say where it will end