Issues of Bioterrorism and Biowarfare
Bioterrorism is a form of terrorism in which terrorists purposely spread deadly or harmful biological agents with the intention to scare a population. Biowarfare deals with bacteria, biological toxins, viruses, and fungi that are used to kill and/or immobilize a large group of people. Biological agents are some of the fastest-advancing, and deadliest weapons of mass destruction known to man, and although biological attacks have been occurring for centuries, they have recently become more prevalent and more concerning. There is dire need for action against bioterrorism and biowarfare, especially since the production of biological weapons is so easy and accessible to the public, given the internet’s countless resources on the topic.
Biological agents are classified, by the Center for Disease Control, as Category A or Category B. Category A biowarfare agents spread easily, have a high mortality rate, cause the public to panic, and require special governmental action to protect its citizens (Feldmann, Ken). Two examples of bacterial, Category A biowarfare agents include Anthrax (Bacillus Anthracis) and the Plague (Yersinia Pestis). Smallpox (Variola major) and Filoviruses (like Ebola) are also Category A agents, but they are viral instead of bacterial. Category B agents, in contrast, are somewhat easy to spread, result in a moderate number of fatalities, and call for an increase in security within a country. (Feldmann, Ken). Category B biowarfare agents that are classified as bacterial include Brucellosis, and food and waterborne enteric diseases (like Salmonella or Vibrio Cholerae). Viral, Category B biowarfare agents include Alphaviruses (like Venezuelan Encephalomyelitis). Viral outbreaks cannot be treated with antibiotics, and viral biowarfare agents are more difficult to culture. Thus, bacterial biological agents make the ideal weapon of mass destruction. Bacterial agents are easier and less expensive to grow, and they can be cured with antibiotics. There are six factors to take into consideration when creating a biological weapon: incubation time (how many days it takes to kill), how the agent will be spread (airborne, person-person, etc.), and the weapon’s endurance, storage, preparation, and the essential yet pricey containment factories and labs (Feldmann, Ken). These six factors are especially pertinent to people seeking to kill mass numbers of people, but bioterrorists might be less concerned with this approach since their intention is to scare people, not necessarily to kill them.
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One of the most common biological agents associated with biowarfare and bioterrorism is anthrax, or Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax, a Category A biowarfare agent, threatens the national security of the United States (Duddu, Praveen). According to Praveen, anthrax spores, which are inherently found in soil, are quickly and easily produced, and can endure for a long time in any given environment. The accessibility and ease of production of anthrax, especially considering that it is a type of bacteria, make it the ideal biological agent for an attack, and its inhalation form is the deadliest. Anthrax can survive difficult conditions, stores well, and is incredibly infectious. Most recently, in August of 2012, there was an anthrax outbreak on a Colorado ranch in Logan County. 50 or more cattle were killed during this anthrax outbreak (Feldmann, Ken).
Smallpox (Variola major), another Category A agent of biowarfare, is a virus. Since it is a virus and not a bacterium, smallpox cannot be killed by antibiotics. The disease was used during the American Revolutionary war and against Native Americans (Duddu, Praveen). It is highly contagious and there is no cure, only a vaccine that can help protect a person from future outbreaks of the disease. There are currently no outbreaks of smallpox anywhere in the world, and there are only two cultures of the virus: one in the United States, and one in Russia. It has been completely eradicated as a contagious disease, at least for the time being. In 1967, the WHO commenced an immunization program for the smallpox virus, which was successful on a global scale. However, according to the Army Technology website, the USSR initiated a program to mass-produce the smallpox virus to be used as a biological agent, potentially with the intention of initiating an attack (in 1980).
The use of biological warfare can be traced back to the year 1346 in Kaffa, when during a siege, the Tartars catapulted bodies that were plague-infected over the city walls (Feldmann, Ken). Much later, during the Revolutionary War, the British used Smallpox as a biological weapon against the Continental Army. In an effort to force the Americans to surrender, the British exposed their own army to milder forms of the disease to help them develop immunity, and they hoped to subsequently transmit the disease to the Continental Army. The use of smallpox as a biological weapon was not unprecedented for the British. At Fort Pitt in 1763, the British had distributed smallpox-infected linens to Delaware Indians at a conference which was intended to foster peace between the British and the Native Americans (“History of Biowarfare).
During World War I, the Germans avidly pursued the research and use of biological weapons. With livestock as their target, the Germans hoped that the animals, which would be shipped to the Allies, would initiate widespread epidemics. Their weapons of choice were Anthrax and Glanders, two of the most easily-cultivated and deadly biological agents (“History of Biowarfare). Even though their biological weapons program was implemented around the same time as World War I, the incentive for the program increased during World War II, and Germany began to do more extensive research later on. Meanwhile, the Japanese began to develop their own biological weapons program, hoping to use such weapons to expand their empire and gain global dominance. After the first world war, countries all over the world began experimenting with biological weapons. During the second world war, Japan initiated a program for biological weapons research. In their experimentation with bioweapons, the Japanese dispersed cholera and typhus among Chinese water wells in order to study its effects on humans. (Frischknecht, Friedrich). They tested 25 different types of diseases, as well as various strains, on prisoners and civilians alike, especially the Chinese. Even after the Japanese surrendered following World War II, the effects of their biological weapons experimentation remained, by 1947, they had murdered another 30,000-innocent people (Frischknecht, Friedrich).
During World War II and soon after, the Soviet Union and the United States began developing biological weapons programs of their own. This competition for superior weaponry came to a head during the Cold War and the Arms Race. At this time, the USSR and the US experimented with many bacteria, biological toxins, and viruses, and tested various methods of dispersal. In the United States in 1972, President Nixon ended the testing of biological weapons, perhaps as a consequence of increasing Vietnam War protests (“History of Biowarfare). In 1972, shortly after Nixon’s termination of the United States’ testing of biological agents, biowarfare was banned by the Biological Weapons Convention (Feldmann, Ken). The Convention determined that the creation of offensive biological weapons was unlawful, but the creation of defensive ones was permitted. Thirty countries, including Uganda, Uruguay, and Vietnam, still haven’t ratified the treaty, an indication that it is more important than ever that America enhances its research on defensive biological warfare.
As the biological weapons programs within the U.S. and the Soviet Union tapered off, the production of bioweapons went into effect in Iraq in 1985 (“History of Biowarfare). Even though Iraq’s program started out as rudimentary, within just a couple of years, the country established effective biological weapons, including botulinum toxin, aflatoxin, anthrax, and other agents that remain unknown to the United States (“History of Biowarfare). It is common knowledge that Iraq utilized chemical weapons in its war against Iran, but Iraq continued to deny the existence of a biological warfare program. After investigation by the United Nations, it was UNSCOM was unable to prove that the country had ever used their biological weapons arsenal. Despite this, it is suspected that Iraq’s biological arsenal still exists, and with the help of Russian biowarfare professionals, they are inevitably growing more and more powerful by the day (“History of Biowarfare).
One of the most recent biological attacks occurred about a week after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. A letter with Anthrax spores inside was delivered to and opened by Tom Brokaw at NBC News in New York. Another similar letter arrived at the office of the New York Post, and a third at the office of Senator Tom Daschle. Eighteen people were infected by the anthrax spores, and five died from inhalation, the deadliest mode of infection (“History of Biowarfare). This attack, although fatal for five innocent people, is classified as bioterrorism instead of biowarfare. Since it happened on a relatively small scale, it’s difficult to say that this was an act of war. What’s clear, however, is that this attack effectively frightened or “terrorized the citizens of the United States. The fear of the unknown is perhaps the most paralyzing aspect of bioterrorism, not knowing when, where, or how an attack will occur.
Bioterrorism, biowarfare, and biological weapons of mass destruction (WMD) are developing at a rapid pace in our modern world. While some countries (like the United States) are focused primarily on defensive biological warfare and antidotes, other countries (namely, the ones who still have not signed the treaty of 1972) are inevitably developing or working to develop newer, more powerful biological weaponry. Deadly pathogens and microorganisms are easily developed in laboratories, and they can be used to target specific populations. Since it is so easy to develop such deadly biological agents, the United States needs to be prepared to retaliate in the case of an attack. The issue is that there are so many agents for weapons, methods of dispersal, and targeted populations, that it is nearly impossible to pinpoint or anticipate a bioterrorist’s next target (Thompson, Loren). Even civilians can access information that would allow them to develop a biological weapon. People are beginning to turn everyday materials and substances into dangerous ones that can cause numerous fatalities. This trend will certainly continue, and consequently, the United States needs to enact protective measures against biological weapons and try to prepare for whatever biowarfare-based obstacles emerge.