What is Biological Warfare?
Biological warfare is the use of pathogens - bacteria and viruses that damage the body - to harm an enemy's population. They can be released to one person and spread to infect thousands or millions. They cause terror and death. Most pathogens that could be used have mortality rates (the percentage of those infected that die) of greater than 50%, some greater than 90%. Some are highly infectious, and can spread across a population with terrifying speed. Others can simply be posted to an enemy, as we saw during the anthrax attacks. Several of the most feared viruses cause agonising deaths - for example, Ebola liquefies the internal organs.
Who would carry out Biological Warfare?
Many countries - including the US - have had biological weapons programs. The present number developing such weapons is thought to be 17. This excludes the many terrorist groups also believed to be researching these weapons, and nations with stockpiles of these weapons.
Of all these, many could have a motive to launch a biological attack on the US in the near future. Countries presently creating biological weapons include: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Taiwan, Israel, Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Bulgaria, India, South Korea, South Africa, China and Russia - a terrifying mixture of America's cold war enemies (China, Russia), rogue states (Iran, Iraq, Libya, North Korea), countries that could easily go to war in the near future (Israel, Taiwan) and other countries that despise America (Vietnam, Cuba). Add to this terrorists, like Al Queda and Aum Shinrikyo ('The Supreme Truth'), and a frightening number of people have the ability to start biological wars.
When have they been used?
So far biological weapons have had little used, mainly due to the lack of wars since their development. The largest use of biological weapons was during World War 2, when Japan used bubonic plague to kill 300,000 Chinese civilians. In 1974 a local cult used salmonella to infect 750 people. The terrorists Aum Shinrikyo tried to grow Botulism but failed.
Why are they so dangerous?
Biological weapons are arguably more dangerous than any other form of weapon, for these reasons:
· Nuclear and chemical weapons only kill people in an isolated area, meaning that large numbers have to be used to kill most of an enemy's population. Biological weapons can kill thousands with a microscopic amount.
· They are virtually undetectable before being deployed, allowing them to be transported into hostile countries by car or plane, as well as by missile.
· They cause no damage to buildings, allowing a country to eliminate its enemies and move in to take control of undamaged cities.
· They can kill far more people than any other type of weapon.
· Even if only a few die, they cause terror within an enemy's population.
· They are extremely cheap compared to other weapons. A vast arsenal can be grown from one sample. This is especially beneficial for terrorists.
· They can be acquired with terrifying ease. Using only a false letterhead and credit card, a man in America was able to acquire a large amount of Bubonic Plague. He was later found to be a member of a white supremacist organisation, had he not been caught another outbreak of plague could have occurred.
How could they be distributed?
There are many ways in which they could be distributed. Russia developed techniques using missiles and bombs to spread the pathogens. Anthrax was recently deployed using the post. Al Queda attempted to acquire crop-dusting planes, which could be used to spread pathogens to millions. They could be released from conventional planes. Terrorists could release them in ventilation systems to spread them across a building. However they are spread, infectious pathogens could soon be passed to others, leading to casualties thousands of times greater than the original number infected.
Which are the most dangerous pathogens?
One of the most feared viruses is Ebola and its close relatives Lassa and Marburg. These are viral hemorrhagic fevers (VHFs), which refers to the internal bleeding they cause. Blood starts bleeding out of the eyes, mouth and ears. The internal organs start to liquefy. The nervous system can degenerate, and patients suffer seizures and delirium. Some suffer shock or go into comas. Between 50 and 90% die an agonising death, making Ebola one of the most deadly viruses known. Death happens after just a week of infection, as victim dies they become convulsive, splashing infected blood around them.
There is no vaccine, there is no cure. The virus is spread by human contact, allowing one infected human to spread it to many others. For example in 1996 a doctor treating patients with Ebola in Gabon unwittingly transmitted it to a nurse in South Africa when he travelled there, killing her. It can also be spread in bodily fluids, dangerous as Ebola victims bleed a lot, and through the air, but only for short distances.
In 1347 bubonic plague slaughtered more than 40 million across Europe and China in one outbreak. Glands swell to the size of grapefruit, limbs fill with fluid and flesh turn dark purple. It was so devastating because of its combination of being highly contagious and nearly always lethal if untreated. The bacterium - yersinia pestis - also has an awesome reproductive rate - in ten hours a single copy can produce a billion others. This means that terrorists could grow a vast amount in just a few days. There is a vaccine but a surprise attack would overwhelm hospitals and could potentially kill thousands. In a country with no sophisticated health system the effects would be far worse, as the outbreaks in Europe in the Middle Ages showed.
Botulism toxin is the single most poisonous substance known. It is highly lethal and infectious. Botulism can show its symptoms within just 2 hours of ingestion. It initially causes blurred vision, vomiting and nausea. Later, the toxin damages motor neurones, the nerves that connect the brain to muscles. This causes paralysis, and in some cases means that patients cannot even breathe for themselves. For these reasons botulism has been a weapon of choice, many countries have stockpiles of it and the terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo tried to create it.
Smallpox is one of the most devastating of all infectious diseases. It is highly infectious, kills 30% of victims and can spread in any climate or season. It is carried in the air, making it extremely contagious and able to contaminate many people in a short time. Smallpox used to ravage the world but following a vaccination program in 1980 the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared that it had been eradicated, so countries stopped vaccination. In the same year Russia started to produce large quantities, successfully adapting it for use on bombs or missiles. Russia's industry is still capable of producing vast amounts of smallpox, enough to kill hundreds of millions. Vaccination ceased in 1972 in the US - everyone born after that date has no immunity.
The outbreak of anthrax by post last year reminded the world why anthrax is so feared. Many people were infected, several killed, but this was only on a tiny scale. If anthrax were spread through the air, more cases of the most dangerous form, inhalation anthrax, would occur. In the largest outbreak of inhalation Anthrax, in Sverdlovsk, Russia, 1979, 68 out of 79 died - 86% mortality rate. Al Queda tried to acquire crop-spraying planes for this purpose, but it could also be spread from a conventional aircraft. A US estimate suggested that just 100kg of anthrax released over Washington would kill up to 3 million people. A release of this much would be simple for terrorists who had acquired the bacteria. Staying indoors would be no protection - the spores are so tiny they could get inside. Anthrax could cause similar casualties to a nuclear weapon at a tiny fraction of the cost to terrorists and with far less technology.