Past, present and future advances in biological weaponry to demonstrate a threat of a bioterrorist attack
Becky L. Little
Salt Lake Community College
Bioterrorism is a planned attack by the release of a biological agent into an environment to cause harm. Biological weapons have been used for thousands of years but only recently have we been able to really understand how and why they work. With this understanding, scientists have been able to alter these agents as well learn how to protect the intended victims from them. It’s times like these, when war is prevalent, that we have to be cautious and aware of the dangers of bioterrorism. By looking into the past and present uses and technological advances of biological weapons, we can properly assess the future threats of a bioterrorist attack. We can also use this information to decide what action to take in the event of an attack.
What is Bioterrorism
According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), the definition of bioterrorism is,” the deliberate release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs (agents) used to cause illness or death in people, animals, or plants.” They further explain that biological weapons are typically found in nature, but it is possible that they could be changed to increase their potency. The CDC separates them into three categories based on how easily they can spread and the severity of illness. The Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism, commonly referred to as “The Commission”, distinguishes these agents by the characteristics that affect their use as a weapon. Both of these organizations have the job of keeping as many people as possible safe from a potential bioterrorist attack.
The History of Bioweaponry
While the understanding of why biological weapons worked may not have been there, history shows that humankind knew that something would happen when they used them. They knew that dipping their arrows in the venom of certain animals would poison their prey and enemies. They were aware that if they exposed their enemies to their sick and diseased, their enemies would get sick as well.
Historical documents show several examples of bioweapons being used in ancient human history. Some of these documents hint that the Hittites - whose empire stretched from modern-day Turkey to northern Syria - sent diseased rams to their enemies to weaken them with tularemia. Experts caution that more evidence is needed to firmly establish that the Hittites intended to spread disease using the animals ( Khamsi, 2007). Even in ancient mythology, knowledge of biological weapons are expressed when Hercules dips his arrows in serpent venom (Mayor, 2003).
In the 1346, Tartars used the bodies of the victims infected with bubonic plague to throw over the city walls of Kaffa while at war to reclaim the city from Italian traders. The surviving traders carried the disease back to Italy. This resulted in what we know as “The Black Death”. The bubonic plague killed almost a third of Europe’s population within five years (Hibbert, 2004).
When Europeans came to the New World, they brought many diseases with them. Many Native Americans died from these new diseases, including smallpox. In the French and Indian War (1754 – 1763), the British used this weakness to fight; they sent blankets used by smallpox victims to the Delaware Indians (Broyles, 2005).
In 1979, in the city of Sverdlosk, now known as Yekaterinburg, a missing air filter allowed aerosolized anthrax spores into the outside air. People and animals began falling sick. Sixty – four people died within six weeks. At first, the Soviets claimed it was caused by tainted meat. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the outbreak was caused by a biological weapons facility. (Broyles, 2005)
In 1984, an Oregon commune known as the Shree Rajneesh, in order to lessen opposing votes, poisons ten salad bars with salmonella. They wanted to get their members elected to the county’s government and take it over. It was mostly ineffective, 750 people got ill but no one died. (Broyles, 2005)
One week after 9/11, letters containing anthrax spores were mailed to 3 major television stations, The New York Post, and AMI (American Media International). On October 9, 2001, two more of these letters were received by Senators Tom Daschle and Patrick Leahy. By the end of the year, 22 people had been infected. Of the 22 victims, 11 were infected with cutaneous anthrax and 11 were infected with inhalation anthrax. Cutaneous anthrax is contracted through an open wound in the skin and only 20% of untreated victims will die. Inhalation anthrax is contracted by inhaling anthrax spores and is usually fatal due to the rapid progression of the disease as well as the nature of the symptoms. Inhalation anthrax symptoms are very similar to that of a cold or flu (CDC, 2010). Five of the victims infected with inhalation anthrax died. In August 2008, the Department of Justice declared the perpetrator as Bruce E. Ivins, a government biodefense scientist who had worked for decades at a U.S. Army’s biodefense research lab. Ivins commit suicide before he was indicted for the crime. These attacks prompted action from the U.S. Postal Service. Many postal sorting offices now use low-level radiation to kill potential biological agents. (The Commission, 2008)
Around the early 1900’s, scientific discoveries resulted in a better understanding of how these agents worked. With this understanding, the idea of being able to harness them and use them more effectively as weapons arose. With so many wars around the world in the 20th century, research of biological weapons was on a rapid rise. Several agreements between countries of both axis and ally powers, were made during this time; however, some countries refused to sign these agreements and some signed them, but continued their weapons research. Due to the threat of a possible bioterrorist attack, the U.S. turned their focus to identifying biological agents and protecting their citizens from a possible bioterrorist attack (Broyles, 2005).
The first attempts at modern biological warfare began during World War I (1914 – 1918). Germans infected livestock, located in neutral countries, which were scheduled to be shipped to enemy territories (Broyles 2005). It was during the World War II (1939-1945) that serious experimentation and stockpiling of biological weapons began. Still, there was not enough known about biological agents to widely use them during this time. It is rumored that the Russians used tularemia, a bacterial infection that causes fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, in the 1942 Battle of Stalingrad, but there is no proof. Japan, however was the only country known to have used germ warfare extensively. Unit 731 of the Japanese Army conducted experiments on prisoners, infecting them with diseases such as anthrax, cholera, typhoid, and bubonic plague. About 10,000 people were killed in these experiments. Using what they learned from these experiments, they attacked China by dropping ceramic containers of bubonic plague-infested fleas on Chinese countryside, poisoned wells and food supplies, gave out “gifts” of infected food to Chinese villagers, and gave “inoculations” to Chinese children which were actually deadly infections. The extents of these attacks are still unknown because the Japanese government is still reluctant to release a full report (Broyles, 2005).
After World War II, tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R continued. Both nations began developing biological weapons at an alarming rate. They were experimenting with biological agents to develop weapons that would cause as much damage to the enemy as possible. In 1969, President Richard Nixon terminated the U.S. offensive bioweapons program and ordered all bioweapons stock to be destroyed. The U.S. then changes their focus to detection and prevention of biological weapons (Broyles, 2005).
In 1972, a treaty called the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) was signed by more than 100 countries. This treaty bans the development, production, and acquisition of biological and toxin weapons. It also forbids member states from assisting other governments, non-state entities, or individuals in obtaining biological weapons. It requires each state party to take, “any necessary measures to prohibit and prevent” the activities banned by the treaty (The Commission, 2008). While this was a huge stride in the control of biological weapons, it was not a fix-all. It was difficult to monitor the actions of other countries. Some refused to sign it and others continued their weapons research despite their agreement (The Commission, 2008).
Bioterrorism and the CDC.
Biological weapons can be spread through air, water, or food. The CDC prioritizes them into three categories. Category A is highest priority and include organisms that can be easily disseminated or transmitted from person to person, could result in high death toll or major health impact, could cause public panic and social disruption, and requires special action for public health preparedness. Some examples of category A agents are anthrax and smallpox. Category B is the second highest priority and includes organisms that are moderately easy to disseminate, result in moderate morbidity rates and low mortality rates, and requires enhancements of the CDC’s diagnostic capacity and enhanced disease surveillance. Some examples of category B agents are brucellosis and ricin toxin. Category C is the third highest and includes emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future because of availability, ease of production and dissemination, and potential for high morbidity and mortality rates and major health impact. Category C agents include emerging infectious diseases such as Nipah virus and Hantavirus. (CDC, 2010)
The Future of Biological Weapons
There is definitely a controversy over whether biological weapons research is good or bad. Due to the discoveries and advances in gene modification, more horrific biological weapons could become a reality. However, these discoveries are also aiding in the development of protections against future bioterrorist attacks. If the development of biological weapons cannot be controlled, should we continue researching ways to protect ourselves from them?
The Cons of Biological Weapons Research
The continued research of bioweapons could negatively affect the human race. The ability to decode DNA sequences makes it plausible for scientists to synthesize nearly any virus as well as develop artificial microbes by means of gene modification. Scientists have already been able to make infectious disease such as polio and the formerly extinct 1918 strain of influenza through synthetic genomics. Continued research could lead to the development of new and more deadly biological weapons than ever imagined. If this happens, a worldwide epidemic of an incurable, deadly disease is feasible (the Commission, 2008).
The Pros of Biological Weapons Research
On the other hand, bioweapons research has impacted us positively and has the possibility of continuing to do so. Several immunizations have been developed, such as vaccines for anthrax and smallpox; although, they are not available to everyone. They are limited to soldiers, laboratory technicians, and others that are exposed to biological agents. Also, in the report written by The Commission in 2008, it was stated that we do not have a sufficient amount of stock in the case of a massive bioterrorist attack in the United States. The immunizations that we do have often have many undesirable side effects. Immunizations for biological agents are always being experimented with in the search for safer alternates. In the 2010 Report by John J. Castellani, 395 medicines and vaccines are in testing. Among these are several vaccines for anthrax as well as vaccines for botulism, cholera, ebola, and smallpox (the Commission, 2008).
Due to the research on biological weapons, detection and removal has been more successful. It has led to more effective antibiotics, which are continuing to be researched and improved. The knowledge gained in this research has given us the ability to destroy them before they reach their intended victims as shown with the USPS sorting facilities.
The Threat of Bioterrorism
The fact that biological weapons are cheaper and easier to acquire and produce makes them a very likely option for an attack (the Commission, 2008). After 9/11, President Bush set up a group called the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation, and Terrorism. This group was given 180 days to assess any and all of the nation's activities, initiatives, and programs to prevent weapons of mass destruction, proliferation, and terrorism. Their report was released in December of 2008. The report was named World At Risk and their findings were startling.
According to the report by the Commission, the threat of a bioterrorist attack is imminent. They believe that unless the world community acts decisively and with great urgency, it is more likely than not that a weapon of mass destruction will be used in a terrorist attack somewhere in the world by the end of 2013. The Commission further believes that terrorists are more likely to be able to obtain and use a biological weapon rather than a nuclear weapon.
The Commission investigated the United States’ labs with the highest level of biological containment required for work with the most dangerous viruses. They found that the labs were not secure enough. They watched a pedestrian walk right into one building through an unguarded loading dock. They found that one facility’s only barrier was an arm gate that swung across the roadway and it was guarded by unarmed guards. The scientists could be seen working through a window, making it common knowledge exactly where these deadly pathogens were kept (the Commission, 2008).
According to the report by the Commission, The Homeland Security Council created a scenario of how terrorists could launch an anthrax attack in the U.S. The scenario describes a single aerosol attack in a city, delivered by a truck using a concealed improvised spraying device, in a densely populated urban city with a significant commuter workforce. It does not, however, exclude the possibility of multiple attacks in disparate cities or time-phased attacks. For federal planning purposes, it will be assumed that the Universal Adversary will attack five separate metropolitan areas in a sequential manner. Three cities will be attacked initially, followed by two additional cities two weeks later. It is possible that a Bio-Watch signal would be received and processed but not until the day after release. In the end, this supposed attack would result in 328,848 exposures; 13,208 untreated fatalities; and 13,342 total casualties (the Commission).
The biological agent that is most likely to be used in a terrorist attack to date is anthrax. The biological weapons that are used most are the ones that are highly infectious, but not highly contagious so that it does not pose a threat to the users. Anthrax is considered an ideal biological weapon because it is easy to grow, highly lethal when inhaled, able to transform itself into a hearty spore that can persist in soil or contaminate a target area for years, and it is not contagious from person to person. (Hibbert, 2004)
Due to the difficulty of weaponizing and disseminating significant quantities of a biological agent in aerosol form, government officials and outside experts do not believe that any terrorist group has the capability of a massive attack right now. This could change quickly, however, if they were able to recruit technical experts with experience and knowledge in a national biological warfare program (the Commission, 2008).
Looking back on the history of biological weapons shows that there is a higher risk of an attack during times of war. It shows that an enemy will do anything in their power to fight and win. Biological weapons have been used because they are readily available. With the information we have learned from the past, a more informed assessment can be made on what could and could not happen in the event of a massive bioterrorist attack. This makes it easier to prepare for an attack and prevent a large amount of casualties. Recently, scientific advances have made biological agents better understood and therefore the use of them more effective. More presently, scientific breakthroughs in DNA analysis and gene modification make even more effective and deadly biologic weapons a likely possibility. However, these advances and the knowledge of the history of bioweapons is what we will likely need to fight against these possible attacks.
Mayor, Adrienne (2003). Greek Fire, Poison Arrows & Scorpion Bombs: Biological and Chemical Warfare in the Ancient World. Woodstock & New York: The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
Broyles, Janelle (2005). Chemical and Biological Weapons in a Post-9/11 World. New York: The Rosen Publishing Group
Hibbert, Adam (2004). Chemical and Biological Warfare. Illinois:Raintree
McCuen, Gary E. (1999). Biological Terrorism & Weapons of Mass Destruction.Wisconsin:Gary E. McCuen Publications, Inc.
Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction, Proliferation and Terrorism (2008). World at Risk. D.C.:Author Appel, J.M. (2009). Is all fair in biological warfare? The controversy over genetically engineered biological weapons. J Med Ethics, 35, 429-432, doi:10.1136/jme.2008.028944
Khamsi, R (2007, December). Were 'cursed' rams the first biological weapons? New Scientist. Retrieved from http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn12960-were-cursed-rams-the-first-biological-weapons-.html
Castellani, J (2010) 2010 Report: Medicines in Development for Infectious Diseases. Biopharmaceutical Research Continues Against Infectious Diseases with 395 Medicines and Vaccines in Testing. Retrieved from http://www.phrma.org/sites/phrma.org/files/attachments/Infectious_Diseases_2010.pdf