Call it a Biological warfare, germ warfare, or the use of biological toxins; it’s an Emerging Weapons of Mass Destruction in the 21st century. The fascination for bioweapons in war and use in terroristic assaults is because of their low creation costs. The simple admittance to a wide scope of illness delivering natural operators, their non-identification by routine security frameworks, and their simple transportation. Their properties of intangibility and virtual weightlessness render location and check systems inadequate and make restraint of such weapons difficult. Therefore, public security chiefs protection experts, and security staff will progressively be defied by natural fighting as it unfurls in the front lines of future wars. Biological warfare is as old as civilization, but it was international revulsion over the widespread use of poisonous mustard gas during World War I that finally led to a 1925 treaty banning bioweapons during future wars.
What is Biological Warfare?
Biological warfare is the intentional use of micro-organisms, or infectious agents and toxins such as bacteria, viruses, insects, and fungi, generally, of microbial, plant, or animal origin to produce disease, death in humans, destroy livestock, and crops as an act of mass destruction war. Biological weapons are often termed “bio-weapons”, “biological threat agents”, or “bio-agents” that are living organisms or replicating entities i.e. viruses, which are not universally considered “alive”. A biological hazard symbol known as Biohazard, is used in the labeling of biological materials that carry a significant health risk, including viral samples and used hypodermic needles. In Unicode, the biohazard symbol is U+2623 (☣).
The use of biological weapons is prohibited under customary international humanitarian law, as well as a variety of international treaties. The use of biological agents in armed conflict is a war crime.
Biological Weapons Convention
Offensive biological warfare, such as mass production, stockpiling, and use of biological weapons, was banned by the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention. The reason behind this treaty, which has been approved or agreed to by 170 countries, is to prevent a biological attack that could result in large numbers of civilian casualties and cause severe loss to the economy and social infrastructure. Many countries, including country that has signed the Biological Weapons Convention treaty, currently pursue research into the defense or protection against Biological Warfare, which is not prohibited by the Biological Weapons Convention treaty.
A country or group that can pose a credible threat of mass casualty can alter the terms under which other nations or groups interact with it. When indexed to weapon mass and cost of development and storage, biological weapons possess destructive potential and loss of life far above nuclear, chemical or conventional weapons. Accordingly, biological agents are potentially useful as strategic restraints, in addition to their utility as offensive weapons on the battlefield.
Biological warfare and chemical warfare overlap to an extent, as the use of toxins produced by some living organisms, is admitted under the provisions of both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Toxins and psycho-chemical weapons are often connected to as mid-spectrum agents. Unlike bioweapons, these mid-spectrum agents do not reproduce in their host and are typically characterized by shorter incubation periods.
Forms and Types of Biological Warfare
Elementary forms of biological warfare
Elementary or you can say basic forms of biological warfare have been practiced since age. The earliest documented event of intentional use of biological weapons is recorded in Hittite texts of 1500–1200 BC, in which victims of tularemia were driven into enemy lands, causing a pandemic. Although the Assyrians knew about a parasitic fungus of rye known as ergot, which produces ergotism when ingested, there is no evidence that they poisoned enemy wells with this fungus, as claimed.
Scythian archers dipped their arrows and Roman soldiers their swords into excrements and cadavers – victims were commonly infected by tetanus as result. In 1346, the bodies of Mongol warriors of the Golden Horde who had died of plague were thrown over the walls of the besieged Crimean city of Kaffa. Specialists disagree about whether this operation was responsible for the spread of the Black Death into Europe, the Near East, and North Africa, resulting in the deaths of approximately 25 million Europeans.
From the sixteenth century AD, Biological materials were extensively used in many parts of Africa, most of the time in the form of poisoned arrows, or powder spread on the war front as well as poisoning of horses and water supply of the enemy forces. In Borgu, there were specific mixtures to kill, hypnotize, make the enemy bold, and to act as an antidote against the poison of the enemy as well. The creation of Biological materials was reserved for a specific and professional class of medicine-men.
Entomological warfare a type of biological warfare
Entomological warfare is a type of biological warfare in which insects are used to attack the enemy. The concept has existed for ages and research and development have continued into the modern era. Entomological warfare has been used in battle by Japan and several other nations have developed and been accused of using an entomological warfare program. Entomological warfare may employ insects in a direct attack or as vectors to deliver a biological agent, such as the plague. Essentially, Entomological warfare exists in three varieties. One type of Entomological warfare involves infecting insects with a pathogen and then dispersing the insects over target areas. The insects then act as a vector, infecting any person or animal they might bite. Another type of Entomological warfare is a direct insect attack against crops; the insect may not be infected with any pathogen but instead represents a threat to agriculture. The final method uses uninfected insects, such as bees, wasps, etc., to directly attack the enemy.
Genetic warfare a type of biological warfare
Theoretically, novel approaches in biotechnology, such as synthetic biology could be used in the future to design novel types of biological warfare agents. Genetically modified foods also known as genetically engineered foods, or bioengineered foods are foods produced from organisms that have had changes introduced into their DNA using the methods of genetic engineering, this type of warfare can be used to destroy an entire population, without letting them know.
Most of the biosecurity cases in synthetic biology and genetically engineered foods
- Genetic warfare may demonstrate how to render a vaccine ineffective.
- It can confer resistance to therapeutically useful antibiotics or antiviral agents.
- It will enhance the virulence of a pathogen or render a nonpathogen virulent.
- It may increase the transmissibility of a pathogen and alter the host range of a pathogen.
- It may enable the evasion of diagnostic/detection tools and may enable the weaponization of a biological agent or toxin.
However, these cases are focused on the role of DNA synthesis and the risk of producing genetic material of lethal viruses (e.g. 1918 Spanish flu, polio) in the lab. Recently, the CRISPR/Cas system has appeared as a promising technique for gene editing. The news article was published by The Washington Post as “the most important innovation in the synthetic biology space in nearly 30 years.” While other methods take months or years to edit gene sequences, CRISPR speeds that time up to weeks. However, it has raised a number of ethical concerns due to its ease of use and accessibility, mainly its use in the biohacking space.
Biological Weapons to destroy Agriculture and fisheries
Biological weapons can destroy agriculture a real example; During the Cold War, the United States developed an anti-crop capability that used plant diseases (bioherbicides, or mycoherbicides) for destroying enemy agriculture. Biological weapons also target fisheries as well as water-based vegetation. In a general war, it was believed that the destruction of enemy agriculture on a strategic scale could thwart Sino-Soviet aggression.
To initiate epiphytotic (epidemics among plants); diseases such as wheat blast and rice blast were weaponized in aerial spray tanks and cluster bombs for delivery to enemy watersheds in agricultural regions. When the United States renounced its offensive biological warfare program in 1969 and 1970, the vast majority of its biological armory was made of these plant diseases.
Biological warfare can also specifically target plants to destroy crops or defoliate vegetation. The United States and Britain discovered plant growth regulators (i.e., herbicides) during the Second World War, and initiated a herbicidal warfare program that was eventually used in Malaya and Vietnam in counterinsurgency operations.
Chemicals like herbicides are often grouped with biological warfare and chemical warfare because they may work similarly as Biotoxins or Bioregulators. In the Vietnam war and Eelam War in Sri Lanka; the Army Biological Laboratory tested each agent and the Army’s Technical Escort Unit was responsible for the transport of all chemical, biological, radiological (nuclear) materials and Scorched earth tactics or destroying livestock and farmland were also carried out.
German saboteurs used anthrax and glanders to sicken cavalry horses in the U.S. and France, sheep in Romania, and livestock in Argentina intended for the Entente forces during World War I. One of these German saboteurs was Anton Dilger. Also, Germany itself became a victim of similar attacks – horses bound for Germany were infected with Burkholderia by French operatives in Switzerland.
The U.S. and Canada confidentially investigated the use of Rinderpest(a highly lethal disease of cattle) as a bioweapons during World War II. In the 1980s Soviet Ministry of Agriculture had successfully developed variants of foot-and-mouth disease, and rinderpest against cows, African swine fever for pigs, and psittacosis to kill the chicken. These agents were prepared to spray them down from tanks attached to airplanes over hundreds of miles. The secret program was code-named “Ecology”. During the Mau Mau Uprising in 1952, the poisonous latex of the African milk bush was used to kill cattle.
Anti-Human form of Biological Weapons
Viral agents are being studied and weaponized for a long time which includes some of the Bunyaviridae (mainly Rift Valley fever virus), Ebolavirus, many of the Flaviviridae (mainly Japanese encephalitis virus), Machupo virus, Marburg virus, Variola virus, and yellow fever virus. Fungal agents that have been studied include Coccidioides spp. Toxins that can be used as weapons include ricin, staphylococcal enterotoxin B, botulinum toxin, saxitoxin, and many mycotoxins.
These toxins and the organisms that produce them are sometimes referred to as select agents. In the United States, their possession, use, and transfer are regulated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Select Agent Program. The former US biological warfare program categorized its weaponized anti-personnel bio-agents as either Lethal Agents (Bacillus anthracis, Francisella tularensis, Botulinum toxin) or Incapacitating Agents (Brucella suis, Coxiella burnetii, Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus, Staphylococcal enterotoxin B).
To be used as a weapon against humans characteristics of a Biological agent are high infectivity, high virulence, non-availability of vaccines, and availability of an effective and efficient delivery system. Stability of the weaponized agent (the ability of the agent to retain its infectivity and virulence after a prolonged period of storage) may also be desirable, particularly for military applications, and the ease of creating one is often considered. Control of the spread of the agent may be another desired characteristic.
The production of the biological agent is not so difficult, many biological agents used in weapons can be manufactured relatively quickly, cheaply, and easily. Rather, it is the weaponization, storage, and delivery in an effective vehicle to a vulnerable target that pose significant problems. For example, Bacillus anthracis is considered an effective agent for several reasons. First, it forms hardy spores, perfect for dispersal aerosols. Second, this organism is not considered transmissible from person to person, and thus rarely if ever causes secondary infections.
A pulmonary anthrax infection starts with ordinary influenza-like symptoms and progresses to a lethal hemorrhagic mediastinitis within 3–7 days, with a fatality rate that is 90% or higher in untreated patients. Friendly personnel and civilians can be protected with suitable antibiotics. Agents considered for weaponization, or known to be weaponized, include bacteria such as Bacillus anthracis, Brucella spp, Burkholderia mallei, Burkholderia pseudomallei, Chlamydophila psittaci, Coxiella burnetii, Francisella tularensis, some of the Rickettsiaceae (especially Rickettsia prowazekii and Rickettsia rickettsii), Shigella spp., Vibrio cholerae, and Yersinia pestis.
Biological Warfare as a Strategic Weapon for Military use
As a strategic weapon for military use, a critical issue with a Biological Warfare assault is that; it would take days to be powerful, and accordingly may not promptly stop a restricting power. For example, smallpox, pneumonic plague has the ability of individual-to-individual transmission through aerosolized respiratory beads. This factor can be disturbing, as an agent might be sent by a powerful system to unintended populace (the people living in a particular country or area.), including impartial or even benevolent powers. More terrible thing is, biological weapons could escape from the lab where it was grown or may leak by mistake or intentionally; regardless of whether there was no expectation to utilize it – for instance by tainting an analyst who at that point communicates it to the rest of the world before understanding that they were contaminated.
Few such incidents happened about scientists getting contaminated and passing on of Ebola, which they included when they were working inside the lab; however no one else was infected in those cases – while there is no proof that their work was coordinated towards Biological Warfare, it exhibits the potential for unintentional disease even of cautious specialists completely mindful of the risks. While control of Biological Warfare is to a lesser degree a worry for certain crook or fear monger associations, it stays a huge worry for the military and regular citizen populaces of essentially all countries.
Some Real Incidents of Biological Weapon for Military use.
During the Siege of Fort Pitt in June 1763
During the Siege of Fort Pitt in June 1763, the British Army attempted to use of smallpox against Native Americans. A reported outbreak that began the spring before left as many as one hundred Native Americans dead in Ohio Country from 1763 to 1764. However, it is still not clear, whether the smallpox was a result of the Fort Pitt incident or the virus was already present among the Delaware people as outbreaks happened on their own every dozen or so years and the delegates were met again later and seemingly had not contracted smallpox. The British Marines likely used smallpox in New South Wales, Australia, in 1789. Dr Seth Carus (2015) states: “Ultimately, we have a strong circumstantial case supporting the theory that someone deliberately introduced smallpox in the Aboriginal population.”
During World War I and II
The germ theory and advances in bacteriology brought a new level of sophistication to the techniques for the possible use of bio-agents in war by 1900. Biological sabotage in the form of anthrax and glanders was undertaken on behalf of the Imperial German government during World War I (1914–1918), with indifferent results. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited the use of chemical and biological weapons.
The Ministry of Supply in the United Kingdom established a Biological Warfare program at Porton Down managed by the microbiologist Paul Fildes, since the beginning of World War II. The research was supported by Winston Churchill and soon tularemia, anthrax, brucellosis, and botulism toxins had been effectively weaponized.
Especially, Gruinard Island in Scotland, was contaminated with anthrax during a series of extensive tests for the next 56 years. Although the UK never offensively used the biological weapons it developed, its program was the first to successfully weaponize a variety of deadly pathogens and bring them into industrial production. Other nations, prominently France and Japan, had also begun their own biological weapons programs.
And when the United States entered the war, Allied resources were pooled at the request of the British, and the U.S. established a large research program and industrial complex at Fort Detrick, Maryland in 1942 under the direction of George W. Merck. The biological and chemical weapons developed during that period were tested at the Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah. Soon there were facilities for the mass production of anthrax spores, brucellosis, and botulism toxins, although the war was over before these weapons could be of much operational use.
During Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night, Japan planned to use plague as a biological weapon against U.S. civilians in San Diego, California, during the final months of World War II. The plan was set to launch on 22 September 1945, but it was not executed because of Japan’s surrender on 15 August 1945.
During the Second Sino-Japanese War
During the Second Sino-Japanese War, the most wicked biological warfare program was run by the secret Imperial Japanese Army Unit 731, based at Pingfan in Manchuria and commanded by Lieutenant General Shirō Ishii. This unit did research on biological warfare, conducted often fatal human experiments on prisoners, and produced biological weapons for combat use. Although the Japanese effort lacked the technological sophistication of the American or British programs, it far surpassed them in its broad application and random and aimless cruelty.
In various military operations, Biological weapons were used against Chinese soldiers and civilians. The Japanese Army Air Force bombarded Ningbo with ceramic bombs full of fleas carrying the bubonic plague, in 1940. During these operations, up to 400,000 people may have died; although, many of these operations were ineffective due to inefficient delivery systems. In 1942, During the Zhejiang-Jiangxi Campaign around 1,700 Japanese troops died out of a total 10,000 Japanese soldiers who fell ill with disease when their own biological weapons attack rebounded on their own forces.
United Nations ban on Biological Weapons
The 1950s Britain saw the weaponization of plague, brucellosis, tularemia, and later equine encephalomyelitis and vaccinia viruses, but the program was unilaterally canceled in 1956. The United States Army Biological Warfare Laboratories weaponized anthrax, tularemia, brucellosis, Q-fever, and others During World war and other wars.
In 1969, the UK and the Warsaw Pact, separately, introduced proposals to the UN to ban biological weapons, and US President Richard Nixon terminated the production of biological weapons, allowing only scientific research for defensive measures. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed by the US, UK, USSR, and other nations, as a ban on “development, production and stockpiling of microbes or their poisonous products except in amounts necessary for protective and peaceful research” in 1972.
However, the Soviet Union continued research and production of massive offensive biological weapons in a program called Biopreparat, despite having signed the convention. As of September 2018, 182 countries have ratified the treaty, and none are proven—though nine are still suspected—to possess offensive BW programs.
Use of Biological weapons to gain Strategic or Tactical Advantage over the Enemy
To gain a strategic or tactical advantage over the enemy, Biological weapons may be employed in various ways either by threats or by actual deployments. Like some chemical weapons, biological weapons may also be useful as area denial weapons. These agents may be lethal or non-lethal, and may be targeted against a single individual, a group of people, or even an entire population. They may be developed, acquired, stockpiled, or deployed by nation-states or by non-national groups. In the latter case, or if a nation-state uses it clandestinely, it may also be considered Bioterrorism.
Biological Warfare as a Means of Terrorism known as Bioterrorism
The cost of a biological weapon is estimated to be about 0.05 percent the cost of a conventional weapon in order to produce similar numbers of mass casualties per kilometer square. Besides, their production is very easy as common technology can be used to produce biological warfare, like that used in the production of vaccines, foods, spray devices, beverages, and antibiotics. A major factor in biological warfare that attracts terrorists is that they can easily escape before the government agencies or secret agencies have even started their investigation. This is because the potential organism has an incubation period of 3 to 7 days, after which the results begin to appear, thereby giving terrorists a lead. Biological weapons attracting terrorists because Biological weapons are difficult to detect, economical, and easy to use and this is a serious concern.
Clustered is a technique, Regularly Interspaced, Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR-Cas9) is now so cheap and widely available that scientists fear that the amateurs or terrorists will start experimenting with them. In this technique, a DNA sequence is cut off and replaced with a new sequence or code that codes for a particular protein or characteristic, which could potentially show up in the required organism. Though this technique is a breakthrough and is commendable, it can cause serious issues and potential danger if used by people with wrong intentions. Concerns have emerged regarding do-it-yourself biology research organizations due to their associated risk that a rogue amateur DIY researcher could attempt to develop dangerous bioweapons using genome editing technology.
In 2002, when CNN went through Al-Qaeda’s (AQ’s) experiments with crude poisons, they found out that AQ had begun planning ricin and cyanide attacks with the help of a loose association of terrorist cells. The associates had infiltrated many countries like Turkey, Italy, Spain, France, and others. In 2015, to combat the threat of bioterrorism, a National Blueprint for Biodefense was issued by the Blue-Ribbon Study Panel on Biodefense. Also, 233 potential exposures of select biological agents outside of the primary barriers of the biocontainment in the US were described by the annual report of the Federal Select Agent Program.
Though a verification system can reduce bioterrorism, an employee, or a lone terrorist having adequate knowledge of the company facilities, can cause potential danger by injecting a deadly or harmful substance into the facility. Besides, it has been found that about 95% of accidents that have occurred due to low security have been done by employees or those who had a security clearance.
Epidemiological signs and traces that may indicate a biological attack
- Different and unexplained diseases coexisting in the same patient without any other explanation.
- Rare illness that affects a large, disparate population (respiratory disease might suggest the pathogen or agent was inhaled).
- Single cause of a certain disease caused by an uncommon agent, with a lack of an epidemiological explanation.
- Unusual, rare, genetically engineered strain of an agent.
- High morbidity and mortality rates in regards to patients with the same or similar symptoms.
- Unusual presentation of the disease.
- Unusual geographic or seasonal distribution.
- Stable endemic disease, but with an unexplained increase in relevance.
- Rare transmission (aerosols, food, water).
- No illness presented in people who were/are not exposed to “common ventilation systems (have separate closed ventilation systems) when illness is seen in persons in close proximity who have a common ventilation system.”
- Illness is unusual for a certain population or age-group in which it takes presence.
- Unusual trends of death and/or illness in animal populations, previous to or accompanying illness in humans.
- Many affected reaching out for treatment at the same time.
- Similar genetic makeup of agents in affected individuals.
- Simultaneous collections of similar illnesses in non-contiguous areas, domestic, or foreign.
- An abundance of cases of unexplained diseases and deaths.
Conclusion and final thoughts
It has been debated that rational thinkers would never use biological weapons offensively, but the argument should be that the biological weapons cannot be controlled. The weapon could backfire and harm the entire army on the offensive; perhaps having even worse effects than on the target. An agent like smallpox or other airborne viruses would almost certainly spread worldwide and ultimately infect the user’s home country too. However, this argument does not necessarily apply to bacteria; the case of bacteria could be even worse.
For example, anthrax can easily be controlled and even created in a garden shed; the US FBI suspects it can be done for as little as $2,500 using readily available laboratory equipment. Also, using microbial methods, bacteria can be suitably modified to be effective in only a narrow environmental range, the range of the target that distinctly differs from the army on the offensive. Thus only the target might be affected adversely. The weapon may be further used to bog down an advancing army making them more vulnerable to counterattack by the defending force. Note that these concerns generally do not apply to biologically-derived toxins – while classified as biological weapons, the organism that produces them is not used on the battlefield, so they present concerns similar to chemical weapons.
In 2010, Research and development into medical counter-measures at The Meeting of the States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and Their Destruction in Geneva the sanitary-epidemiological reconnaissance was suggested as well-tested means for enhancing the monitoring of infections and parasitic agents, for the practical implementation of the International Health Regulations (2005). The aim was to prevent and minimize the consequences of natural outbreaks of dangerous infectious diseases as well as the threat of alleged use of biological weapons against BTWC States Parties.
For the Role of public health and disease surveillance, it is important to note that most classical and modern biological weapons’ pathogens can be obtained from a plant or an animal that is naturally infected. Indeed, in the largest biological weapons accident known—the anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg) in the Soviet Union in 1979—sheep became ill with anthrax as far as 200 kilometers from the release point of the organism from a military facility in the southeastern portion of the city and still off-limits to visitors today.
Thus, a robust surveillance system involving human clinicians and veterinarians may identify a bioweapons attack early in the course of an epidemic, permitting the prophylaxis of disease in the vast majority of people or animals exposed but not yet ill.
For example, in the case of anthrax, it is likely that by 24–36 hours after an attack, some small percentage of individuals (those with a compromised immune system or who had received a large dose of the organism due to proximity to the release point) will become ill with classical symptoms and signs (including a virtually unique chest X-ray finding, often recognized by public health officials if they receive timely reports).
The incubation period for humans is estimated to be about 11.8 days to 12.1 days. This suggested period is the first model that is independently consistent with data from the largest known human outbreak. These projections refine previous estimates of the distribution of early-onset cases after a release and support a recommended 60-day course of prophylactic antibiotic treatment for individuals exposed to low doses of anthrax. By making these data available to local public health officials in real-time, most models of anthrax epidemics indicate that more than 80% of an exposed population can receive antibiotic treatment before becoming symptomatic, and thus avoid the moderately high mortality of the disease.
The primary purpose of biodefense or Identification of bioweapons for Defensive operations should integrate the sustained efforts of the national and homeland security, medical, public health, intelligence, diplomatic, and law enforcement communities. Health care providers and public health officers are among the first lines of defense. In some countries private, local, and provincial (state) capabilities are being augmented by and coordinated with federal assets, to provide layered defenses against biological weapon attacks. During the first Gulf War, the United Nations activated a biological and chemical response team, Task Force Scorpio, to respond to any potential use of weapons of mass destruction on civilians.
The traditional approach toward protecting agriculture, food, and water: focusing on the natural or unintentional introduction of a disease is being strengthened by focused efforts to address current and anticipated future biological weapons threats that may be deliberate, multiple, and repetitive. The growing threat of biowarfare agents and bioterrorism has led to the development of specific field tools that perform on-the-spot analysis and identification of encountered suspect materials.
One such technology, being developed by researchers from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), employs a “sandwich immunoassay”, in which fluorescent dye-labeled antibodies aimed at specific pathogens are attached to silver and gold nanowires. In the Netherlands, the company TNO has designed Bioaerosol Single Particle Recognition eQuipment (BiosparQ).
This system would be implemented into the national response plan for bioweapon attacks in the Netherlands. Researchers at Ben Gurion University in Israel are developing a different device called the BioPen, essentially a “Lab-in-a-Pen”, which can detect known biological agents in under 20 minutes using an adaptation of the ELISA, a similar widely employed immunological technique, that in this case incorporates fiber optics.
Biological warfare is a potential threat on the battlefield as well as for a country. It has the ability to destroy any country economically. Given the incubation time of many biological agents and their protean manifestations, it is likely that health-care workers should be trained for such type of situation so that they can be on the front lines in the event of a bioterrorist attack. governmental bodies, political leaders should come forward to make proper laws, and a proactive stance is a must.
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This Article was Published On: 3 October, 2020 And Last Modified On: 9 March, 2021