Biological Warfare (Encyclopedia of Science)
Biological warfare (previously called germ warfare) is the use of diseasecausing microorganisms as military weapons. One of the earliest recorded uses of biological weapons occurred in the fourteenth century. Invading Asian armies used a device called a catapult to hurl bodies of plague (a deadly, highly contagious disease caused by a bacterium) victims over city walls to infect the resisting townspeople. It is thought that this practice resulted in the spread of the Black Death throughout Europe, killing millions of people in four years.
Toward the end of the French and Indian Wars in North America (1689763), a British military officer is said to have given blankets infected with smallpox germs to a tribe of Native Americans, resulting in their infection with the often fatal disease.
In more modern times, an outbreak of inhalation anthrax (a disease caused by inhaling the spores of the anthrax bacterium) in a city in Russia resulted in over 1,000 deaths in 1979. It is thought that this outbreak may have resulted from an accident at a biological warfare facility.
Biological warfare is among the least commonly used military strategies. Most military leaders have been reluctant to release microorganisms that might cause an uncontrolled outbreak of disease, affecting not only the enemy but friendly populations as well.
(The entire section is 1141 words.)
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Biological Warfare (Encyclopedia of Public Health)
Biological warfare is defined as the international use of biological agents or their by-products to harm human populations. Using biological agents to create mass casualties requires more than having the biological agents in handhe agents must also be disseminated. Technology has made it easier to obtain and distribute harmful microorganisms. Since starting the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program in 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and its partners have developed laboratory protocols for the identification of threat agents and have begun to address the needs of public health in responding to an event.
DAVID A. SLEET
STEPHEN A. MORSE
(SEE ALSO: Anthrax; Antisocial Behavior; Arms Control; Contagion; Terrorism; War)
Khan, A.; Morse, S.; and Lillibridge, S. (2000). "Public Health Preparedness for Biological Terrorism in the USA." Lancet 356:1179182.
Stern, J. (1999). "The Prospect of Domestic Bioterrorism." Emerging Infectious Diseases 5 (July-August, Special Issue).
Biological Warfare (World of Microbiology and Immunology)
Biological warfare, as defined by The United Nations, is the use of any living organism (e.g. bacterium, virus) or an infective component (e.g., toxin), to cause disease or death in humans, animals, or plants. In contrast to bioterrorism, biological warfare is defined as the "state-sanctioned" use of biological weapons on an opposing military force or civilian population.
Biological weapons include viruses, bacteria, rickettsia, and biological toxins. Of particular concern are genetically altered microorganisms, whose effect can be made to be group-specific. In other words, persons with particular traits are susceptible to these microorganisms.
The use of biological weapons by armies has been a reality for centuries. For example, in ancient records of battles exist the documented use of diseased bodies and cattle that had died of microbial diseases to poison wells. There are even records that infected bodies or carcasses were catapulted into cities under siege.
In the earliest years of the twentieth century, however, weapons of biological warfare were specifically developed by modern methods, refined, and stockpiled by various governments.
During World War I, Germany developed a biological warfare program based on the anthrax bacillus (Bacillus anthracis) and a strain of Pseudomonas known as Burkholderia mallei. The latter is also the cause of Glanders disease in cattle.
Allied efforts in Canada, the United States, and Britain to develop anthrax-based weapons were also active in World War II During World War II, Britain actually produced five million anthrax cakes at the U.K. Chemical and Biological Defense Establishment at Porton Down facility that were intended to be dropped on Germany to infect the food chain. The weapons were never used. Against their will, prisoners in German Nazi concentration camps were maliciously infected with pathogens, such as hepatitis A, Plasmodia spp., and two types of Rickettsia bacteria, during studies allegedly designed to develop vaccines and antibacterial drugs. Japan also conducted extensive biological weapon research during World War II in occupied Manchuria, China. Unwilling prisoners were infected with a variety of pathogens, including Neisseria meningitis, Bacillus anthracis, Shigella spp, and Yersinia pestis. It has been estimated that over 10,000 prisoners died as a result of either infection or execution following infection. In addition, biological agents contaminated the water supply and some food items, and an estimated 15 million potentially plague-infected fleas were released from aircraft, affecting many Chinese cities. However, as the Japanese military found out, biological weapons have fundamental disadvantages: they are unpredictable and difficult to control. After infectious agents were let loose in China by the Japanese, approximately 10,000 illnesses and 1,700 deaths were estimated to have occurred among Japanese troops.
A particularly relevant example of a microorganism used in biological warfare is Bacillus anthracis. This bacterium causes anthrax. Bacillus anthracis can live as a vegetative cell, growing and dividing as bacteria normally do. The organism has also evolved the ability to withstand potentially lethal environmental conditions by forming a near-dormant, highly resistant form known as a spore. The spore is designed to hibernate until conditions are conducive for growth and reproduction. Then, the spore resuscitates and active metabolic life resumes. The spore form can be easily inhaled to produce a highly lethal inhalation anthrax. The spores quickly and easily resuscitate in the warm and humid conditions of the lung. Contact with spores can also produce a less lethal but dangerous cutaneous anthrax infection.
One of the "attractive" aspects of anthrax as a weapon of biological warfare is its ability to be dispersed over the enemy by air. Other biological weapons also have this capacity. The dangers of an airborne release of bioweapons are well documented. British open-air testing of anthrax weapons in 1941 on Gruinard Island in Scotland rendered the island inhabitable for five decades. The US Army conducted a study in 1951-52 called "Operation Sea Spray" to study wind currents that might carry biological weapons. As part of the project design, balloons were filled with Serratia marcescens (then thought to be harmless) and exploded over San Francisco. Shortly thereafter, there was a corresponding dramatic increase in reported pneumonia and urinary tract infections. And, in 1979, an accidental release of anthrax spores, a gram at most and only for several minutes, occurred at a bioweapons facility near the Russian city of Sverdlovsk. At least 77 people were sickened and 66 died. All the affected were some 4 kilometers downwind of the facility. Sheep and cattle up to 50 kilometers downwind became ill.
The first diplomatic effort to limit biological warfare was the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. This treaty, ratified in 1925, prohibited the use of biological weapons. The treaty has not been effective. For example, during the "Cold War" between the United States and the then Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, the United States constructed research facilities to develop antisera, vaccines, and equipment for protection against a possible biological attack. As well, the use of microorganisms as offensive weapons was actively investigated.
Since then, other initiatives to ban the use of biological warfare and to destroy the stockpiles of biological weapons have been attempted. For example, in 1972 more than 100 countries, including the United States, signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development Production, and the Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction. Although the United States formally stopped biological weapons research in 1969 (by executive order of then President Richard M. Nixon), the Soviet Union carried on biological weapons research until its demise. Despite the international prohibitions, the existence of biological weapons remains dangerous reality.
See also Anthrax, terrorist use of as a biological weapon; Bacteria and bacterial infection; Bioterrorism, protective measures; Bioterrorism; Infection and resistance; Viruses and response to viral infection