Biological warfare (previously called germ warfare) is the use of diseasecausing microorganisms as military weapons. One of the earliest recorded uses of biological weapons occurred in the fourteenth century. Invading Asian armies used a device called a catapult to hurl bodies of plague (a deadly, highly contagious disease caused by a bacterium) victims over city walls to infect the resisting townspeople. It is thought that this practice resulted in the spread of the Black Death throughout Europe, killing millions of people in four years.
Toward the end of the French and Indian Wars in North America (1689–1763), a British military officer is said to have given blankets infected with smallpox germs to a tribe of Native Americans, resulting in their infection with the often fatal disease.
In more modern times, an outbreak of inhalation anthrax (a disease caused by inhaling the spores of the anthrax bacterium) in a city in Russia resulted in over 1,000 deaths in 1979. It is thought that this outbreak may have resulted from an accident at a biological warfare facility.
Biological warfare is among the least commonly used military strategies. Most military leaders have been reluctant to release microorganisms that might cause an uncontrolled outbreak of disease, affecting not only the enemy but friendly populations as well.
Microorganisms used as biological weapons
The microorganisms generally considered suitable for biological warfare include viruses, bacteria, protozoa, and fungi. Toxins (poisonous chemicals) produced by microorganisms also are considered biological weapons. These agents are capable of causing sickness or death in humans or animals, destroying crops, or contaminating water supplies.
Various bacteria have been used or experimented with as biological weapons. Anthrax is an infectious disease that can be passed from cattle and sheep to humans. Inhaling anthrax spores can result in a deadly form of pneumonia. During World War II (1939–45), Japan and Great Britain built and tested biological weapons carrying anthrax spores, and the inhalation of anthrax may still be a threat as a biological weapon today.
The toxin that causes botulism (pronounced BOTCH-uh-liz-um), a rare but deadly form of food poisoning, is regarded as one of the most powerful nerve poisons known to science. Ingestion of a very tiny amount can cause death. The toxin has been tested by the U.S. Army as a coating for bullets and as an ingredient in aerosols (for release into the air).
Brucellosis (pronounced broos-uh-LOHS-us) is a bacterial disease transmitted from animals to humans either by direct contact or by drinking the milk of infected goats and cows. It can be used as a biological weapon that does not kill people but makes them so ill that they are unable to resist an attack.
Words to Know
Microorganism: An organism so small that it can be seen only with the aid of a microscope.
Plague: A contagious disease that spreads rapidly through a population and results in a high rate of death.
Toxin: A poisonous substance produced by an organism.
Saxitoxin is a powerful poison produced by one-celled organisms called dinoflagellates (pronounced dye-no-FLAJ-uh-lets) that live in coastal waters. When present in large numbers, the organisms turn the water a reddish color (called red tides). Shellfish contaminated with saxitoxin can cause partial paralysis or even death in humans who eat them and have been considered for use as biological weapons by American military scientists.
Staphylococcus (pronounced staff-luh-KOCK-us) is any of several strains of bacteria that can cause mild to severe infection in humans. The more dangerous strains are the ones most often tested as possible biological weapons. Staphylococcus toxin can be dried and stored for up to a year without losing its effectiveness.
Tularemia (pronounced two-luh-REE-mee-uh) is a plaguelike bacterial disease often transmitted through insect bites. In humans, tularemia can cause fever, chills, headache, chest pain, and difficulty breathing. At one time, the U.S. Army considered tularemia as of the most promising of all biological weapons.
Genetically engineered weapons
The development of genetic engineering in the second half of the twentieth century has presented the possibility of creating even more dangerous forms of existing microorganisms—forms that could be used as biological weapons. Genetic engineering is the process of altering the genetic material of living cells in order to make them capable of (1) manufacturing new substances, (2) performing new functions, (3) being more easily produced, or (4) holding up well under storage.
The use and control of biological weapons
In 1925, the Geneva Protocol, a treaty banning the first use of biological and chemical weapons in war, was signed and ratified or officially approved by many nations, but not Japan or the United States (the U.S. government did not ratify the treaty until April 1975, some 50 years later). The treaty did not, however, prohibit the use of these weapons in response to an initial biological or chemical attack from an opponent.
Following the signing of the treaty, some nations, including Japan and the United States, conducted their own research on biological weapons, explaining that such studies were necessary in order to develop defensive measures against the use of such weapons by others.
The most serious violator of the Geneva Protocol was Japan, The Japanese military used biological warfare during the 1930s and 1940s in its conquest of China. In addition, captured American soldiers were used by Japan during World War II as test subjects in biological weapons experiments.
In the decades following World War II, the United States maintained a large and aggressive program of biological weapons research. Experiments and tests of biological agents were conducted at dozens of American army bases. In 1969, President Richard Nixon announced that the United States was discontinuing further research on biological and chemical weapons.
In 1972, eighty-seven nations (including the United States) signed the Biological Weapons Convention Treaty, which banned the development, testing, and storage of such weapons. The treaty was entered into force three years later. By 2000, the twenty-fifth anniversary of the treaty being entered into force, over 160 nations had signed the treaty; more than 140 of those had also ratified it. However, in 1982, President Ronald Reagan had declared that the world situation justified research on biological and chemical weapons and that the United States would return to a more ambitious program in this area.
As of the end of the twentieth century, over 450 repositories that sold and shipped plague, anthrax, typhoid fever, and other toxic organisms were located throughout the world. The shipment of pathogenic (disease-causing) organisms is not governed by international laws or treaties. Harmful bacteria can be grown in a garage or a backyard, and guidelines on growing bacteria are instantly available on the Internet. In a typical year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigates about four times as many biological attack threats in the United States as either chemical or nuclear threats. Clearly, law enforcement by local, state, and federal authorities must be strengthened against the possibility of biological disaster.