Biological weapons

Biological weapons are made of living organisms that spread disease among humans, animals or plants. They are far more deadly than chemical weapons – just a small amount could do as much damage as a chemical weapon a thousand times bigger.

History of biological weapons

There are accounts of biological warfare as far back as 300-400 BC, when parts of human or animal bodies were used as tips for arrows or to poison water supplies. Later there were instances of the bodies of those who died from plague being catapulted into besieged cities.

18th century: The British give blankets to Native Americans that have been used by smallpox victims in an attempt to cause disease. There are suspicions and allegations of similar attempts during the American Civil War.

Second World War (1939-1945): Despite the Geneva Protocol banning the use of biological weapons in 1925, during World War II Japan runs a research unit where prisoners are exposed to plague and anthrax. By D-Day, the US has large amounts of anthrax and botulin. In 1942 the British test anthrax bombs. As a result of these tests, Gruinard Island off the coast of Scotland is quarantined until it is declared safe again in 1990, 48 years later.

1969: After strong protests about the use of herbicides in Vietnam, the US bans the production, development and stockpiling of biological weapons. This leads to a series of agreements culminating in the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1972.

1972 onwards: Under the terms of the BWC countries are not allowed to develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire biological agents for use against an enemy. They must destroy any existing stocks and cannot transfer any material to other countries. However, there are no formal verification measures and countries do not have to declare any current or previous possession.

2001: In the US anthrax is sent through the post to senators and newspaper offices, leading to the deaths of five people. Panic spreads throughout the country, showing just how quickly an attack could destabilise a nation.

Today: The US continues to prevent attempts to add an effective verification protocol to the BWC. Reports suggest they are planning biological activities that could violate the BWC, including developing and testing new and existing biological weapons agents for defensive reasons under the Homeland Security Department.

Mark Wheelis, a professor of microbiology at the University of California, Davis is quoted as saying: This is absolutely without any question what one would do to develop an offensive biological weapons capability. We’re going to develop new pathogens for various purposes. We’re going to develop new ways of packaging them, new ways of disseminating them. We’re going to harden them to environmental degradation. We’ll be prepared to go offensive at the drop of a hat if we so desire.

Which countries have biological weapons?

It is very difficult to get verification on who has biological weapons, even from countries that have signed the BWC. The US believes about 17 countries still possess them including Russia, Israel, Egypt, China, Iran, Libya, Syria and North Korea.

Biological weapon treaties

Geneva Protocol: Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare.

  • Opened for signature: 1925
  • Entered into force: 1928 and for each country as it signs
  • November 2010: 137 states ratified, acceded to, or succeeded to the treaty

Biological Weapons Convention

  • Opened for signature: 1972
  • Entered into force: 1975
  • Number of countries ratified: 163

What are the effects of these weapons?

Biological weapons spread disease among humans, animals or plants. Diseases may occur when a population is exposed to infectious microorganisms or chemicals that are manufactured by such organisms:

  • With microorganisms (such as bacteria, viruses or fungi) the symptoms of the disease become apparent after an incubation period, during which time the organisms are multiplying.
  • With toxins symptoms generally appear more rapidly. Among people and animals the effects of disease may range from incapacitation to death. Although toxins cannot reproduce within their targets like microorganisms can, they are generally more lethal.

Toxins can kill within minutes or hours whereas microorganisms can be present for days or weeks before symptoms appear. This means that a biological attack can occur before anyone realises, or even be thought to be an outbreak of disease. Such an attack can have an impact long after it takes place.

The impact also depends on what form the attack takes. Biological weapons can be delivered in a missile warhead, in the form of a bomb, or through aerosol dispersal.

Most biological agents have to be breathed in or ingested to cause an effect. Some examples include:

  • Anthrax: A bacterial agent that, although not contagious, is lethal if inhaled. Contact with the skin is also likely to cause infection.
  • Smallpox: A highly contagious viral agent. It has a very high death rate and travels through air easily.
  • Plague: A bacterial agent that is highly contagious. It causes a type of pneumonia that is lethal if not caught early. Its incubation period is 1-5 days.
  • Ebola: A fever caused by a viral agent. This leads to bleeding from all orifices. There is no cure or treatment.
  • Botulinum: A toxin that causes muscular paralysis resulting in death.