1) Definition of Biological Warfare
2) Talking Points
II Biological Weapons
1) Different Types Used
III History of Biological Warfare
1) How It Has Been Used in Past Wars
2) How We Can Expect It to Be Used in the Future
IV Are We At Risk of Being Attacked With Biological Weapons?
1) Defending Ourselves Against Biological Weapons
Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) warfare is one of the most dreaded forms of attack on the battlefield. In the last century, we learned a great deal about how life works, how it is organized. We have used that technology to save many lives by curing diseases and vaccinating against viruses. But it seems that whenever we have a breakthrough in science, there is an ever-present danger of a form of weapon resulting from the discovery. Biological Warfare is defined as bacteria, viruses, fungi or rickettsia, which are used in wartime to cause disease or death in people (Hay, 1984).
It seems like a contradiction. Doctors work hard to find cures and vaccinations for the various diseases and viruses that plague our population. On the other side of the coin, however, there are people that would use disease as a weapon. They not only use the sort of disease that nature provides, but try to create more effective and horrific manmade diseases. Biological weapons, as opposed to chemical weapons, are effective with a relatively small quantity of agent. However, most of these agents have a limited shelf life, as their activity is continually declining (Hay, 1984).
Most biological agents are dispersed in aerosol form. They can be sprayed from a small cylinder with compressed air, spread by guided missiles, dispersed as a powder from aircraft, or used in a cluster of bombs. The danger is the potential for these biological agents, if successful in infecting a population, can be spread quickly. The U.S. Navy tested the effectiveness of Biological weapons on a metropolis in November of 1950. They released harmless bacteria off the California coast, sufficient to contaminate 117 square miles of the San Francisco Bay area. Scientists reported that nearly all of the 800,000 inhabitants of the city had inhaled the bacteria (Hay, 1984).
To cause an epidemic, an enemy would select a highly contagious virus or bacteria. They would decide whether to use an extremely lethal agent or one that would temporarily incapacitate a population or army to weaken defenses. Most biological weapons are influenza viruses or pneumonic plague bacillus. These meet the requirement of being highly contagious by human contact. As an example, an estimated 20 million people died in the great influenza pandemic of 1918 and 1919 – just three percent of those infected. Surprisingly, then, this great loss of life actually represents a low mortality rate (Solomon, 1999).
For incapacitating the target, brucellosis is preferred. This is a chronic infection caused by the Brucella species of bacteria. A person can be infected by skin contact, by eating or drinking infected material, or by inhaling the organism. This is also an agent that can be produced easily in fermenters. Symptoms vary, but common are a severe chill, a recurring fever, sweating, headache, loss of appetite, extreme exhaustion, aching joints and depression. The symptoms last upwards of four weeks, but relapses can continue for years (Hay, 1984).
The most well known form of brucellosis is anthrax. Aggressors favor this primarily because it is lethal and relatively easy to manufacture. Anthrax is caused by the bacterium bacillus anthracis, and is spread by skin contact, contact with infected animals, or by inhaling or ingesting the agent. The mortality rate is highest when infected by inhalation, at eighty per cent of untreated cases. The danger of anthrax is long term as well. Forty years after being tested on Gruinard, the island is still contaminated with the bacterium (Solomon, 1999).
Although the danger of biological weapons increases as technology progresses, it is not a new threat. One of the earliest reported uses was in the sixth century B.C., when the Assyrians poisoned their enemy’s wells with a fungus disease called rye ergot. The commander of British forces in America, Jeffrey Amherst, used biological warfare on the Ottawa Indians. He sent two wagons of blankets from the smallpox hospital to the tribe as a “peace-offering.” And in the 15th century, Pizarro reportedly presented the South American natives with variola-contaminated clothing (Solomon, 1999).
The use of biological warfare started to spread, however, in the first World War. Both sides of the war used these agents for tactical purposes. On the battlefield itself, however, there is an inherent danger in using these weapons – that of infecting one’s own troops. Also, there is the extreme risk that the disease may get out of control, spread by an unanticipated shift in wind like a wildfire. For this reason, the application of choice for this weapon is long range and terrorist attack. During the cold war, many nations began experimenting and stockpiling biological and chemical weapons. The low cost and ease of manufacturing is the primary reason an aggressor might focus on this form of weapon. Perhaps more so because of their shear effectiveness (Horowitz, 1997).
There is a debate today as to whether we are at risk of an attack by biological weapons. We know that rogue nations, such as Iraq and Iran, have tried to stockpile these weapons, in spite of the United Nations efforts to cease that activity. Officials in the Clinton administration have stated that there is no question – eventually, we will be hurt by these agents. One of our saving graces is that, sometimes, the agents do not act as planned. A Japanese cult launched at least nine germ attacks in Tokyo in the early 1990’s, attempting to kill millions. The strikes, however, produced no known injuries or deaths (Solomon, 1999).
The largest threat comes, not from aggressive nations, but from terrorists. A person can act far more radically than a government. Ifsuch a sociopath got hold of a biological agent, they could take our an entire metropolis. They could even spread the virus or bacteria around an entire nation. Imagine if such a terrorist found his way to San Francisco International Airport. He makes his way to the domestic flights terminal, an aerosol pump easily hidden in his briefcase, he releases a botulinum toxin. He leaves quickly to avoid exposing himself. Now he has transmitted one of the most deadly known substances across the country. It may seem like a far-fetched scenario, but the fact is that at least sixteen nations and an unknown number of terrorist groups can now produce biological weapons (Osterholm, 1997).
Aside from combating biological weapons, one of the major tasks is being able to quickly identify one in the area. The U.S. military uses patches that can be attached to a soldier’s arm or on machinery. These detect just four of the most commonly used biological and chemical weapons. The soldier has just a few seconds to react by donning his protective mask – followed by a decontamination procedure and upgrade to higher levels of Mission Oriented Protective Posture (MOPP) gear, such as an extra layer of heavy clothing and chemical over boots.
Currently, the Johns Hopkins University, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control, are working on methods for identifying dangerous organisms. However, these tests require lengthy procedures, expert technicians, and wet-laboratory environments – as well as a need for non-renewable reagents. What does this mean? A lot of money. The goal is to detect aerosols that contain dangerous organisms in less than five minutes. Thankfully, our country has the scientific and engineering talent to minimize the threat of biological terrorism. The devices will undergo testing at the U.S. Army Dugway Proving Grounds. Successful results will lead to manufacturing of the instruments for military as well as civilian agencies (Abelson, 1999).
NBC warfare is the ultimate use of science for destruction. Not only do we have the ability to destroy every living organism on the planet, we have various ways of carrying out the task. The question is – can mankind survive it’s own technology? This depends on the goodwill of those who possess the destructive technology. As stated previously, it takes just one sociopath with the right technology to wipe out an entire continent. Hopefully, the persons who poses the power to destroy the world, will realize that everyone is a loser in an NBC war – and that long term peace will mean the pursuit of technology to better mankind.