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Biological warfare

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Biological warfare, also known as germ warfare, is the use of any organism (bacteria, virus or other disease-causing organism) or toxin found in nature, as a weapon of war. It is meant to incapacitate or kill an adversary.

Biological warfare is a cause for concern because a successful attack could conceivably result in thousands, possibly even millions, of deaths and could cause severe disruptions to societies and economies. However the consensus among military analysts is that except in the context of bioterrorism, biological warfare is militarily of little use.

The main problem is that a biological warfare attack would take days to implement and therefore unlike a nuclear or chemical attack would not immediately stop an advancing army. As a strategic weapon, biological warfare is again militarily problematic, because it is difficult to prevent the attack from spreading to either allies or to the attacker and a biological warfare attack invites immediate massive retaliation.

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The use of biological agents is not new, but before the 20th century, biological warfare took three main forms:

  • deliberate poisoning of food and water with infectious material,
  • use of microorganisms or toxins in a weapon system
  • use of biologically inoculated fabrics

Biological warfare is believed to have been practiced in the Middle Ages, often by flinging victims of the Black Death over castle walls using catapults. Its use has also been documented in the French and Indian War when British troops distributed blankets infected by smallpox to Native Americans.

Use of such weapons was banned in international law by the Geneva Protocol of 1925. The 1972 Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention extended the ban to almost all production, storage and transport. It is, however, believed that since the signing of the convention the number of countries capable of producing such weapons has increased.

During the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army[?] conducted human experimentation[?] on thousands, mostly Chinese. In military campaigns, the Japanese army used biological weapons on Chinese soldiers and civilians.

Research carried out in Great Britain during World War II left a Scottish Island contaminated with anthrax for the next 48 years.

Considerable research on the topic was performed by the United States, the Soviet Union, and probably other major nations throughout the Cold War era, though it is generally believed that such weapons were never used. There have been reports that United States Army has been developing weapons-grade anthrax spores at a biological and chemical weapons facility in Utah at least since 1992. However, the United States had and maintains a stated policy of never using biological weapons under any circumstances.

Biological weapons characteristics

Ideal characteristics of biological weapons are low visibility, high potency, accessibility, and easy delivery.

Diseases most likely to be considered for use as biological weapons are contenders because of their lethality (if delivered efficiently), and robustness (making aerosol delivery feasible).

The biological agents used in biological weapons can often be manufactured quickly and easily. The primary difficulty is not the production of the biological agent but delivery in an infective form to a vulnerable target.

For example, anthrax is considered an excellent agent. We use it here because it is historically important and enough information is public that this discussion can't be a manual. First, it forms hardy spores, perfect for dispersal aerosols. Second, pneumonic (lung) infections of anthrax usually do not cause secondary infections in other people. Thus, the effect of the agent is usually confined to the target. A pneumonic anthrax infection starts with ordinary "cold" symptoms and quickly becomes lethal. Finally, friendly personnel can be protected with suitable antibiotics or vaccines.

A mass attack using anthrax would require the creation of aerosol particles of 1.5 to 5 microns. Too large and the aerosol would be filtered out by the respiratory system. Too small and the aerosol would be inhaled and exhaled. Also, at this size, nonconductive powders tend to clump and cling because of electrostatic charges. This hinders dispersion. So, the material must be treated with silica to insulate and discharge the charges. The aerosol must be delivered so that rain and sun does not rot it, and yet the human lung can be infected. There are other technological difficulties as well.

Diseases considered for weaponization, or known to be weaponized include anthrax, ebola, pneumonic plague, cholera, tularemia[?], brucellosis[?], Q. fever[?], VEE[?], SEB and smallpox. Naturally-occurring toxins that might be used in weapons include ricin, botulism toxin, and mycotoxins[?].

Protection measures

The primary civil defense against biological weaponry is to wash one's hands whenever one moves to a different building or set of people, and avoid touching door knobs, walls, the ground and one's mouth and nose. Washing literally sends the germs down the drain.

More exotic methods include decontamination, usually done with household chlorine bleach (5% solution of sodium hypochlorite). One useful decontamination is to leave shoes in an entranceway and make people wade and handwash in a footbath of bleach. Another useful technique is to periodically decontaminate floors and door knobs.

Medical methods of civil defense include stockpiles of antibiotics and vaccines, and training for quick, accurate diagnoses and treatment. Many weaponized diseases are unfamiliar to general practitioners.

Positive pressure shelters are possible but not cost-effective except for the most important installations. This is because in most attacks, the agent will disperse in a long narrow ellipse downwind from the release point. Persons outside the ellipse will not be affected except by secondary infection. Persons within the release ellipse cannot be helped by civil defense measures. They need medical diagnosis and treatment.

Examples of biological warfare

Rajneeshi Salmonella Attack

In a small town in Oregon, followers of the Rajneesh Yoga attempted to control a local election by infecting a salad bar with salmonella. The attack caused about 900 people to get sick, and was thus quite effective.

2001 anthrax attack

Numerous cases of anthrax broke out in the United States in the fall of 2001, caused deliberately. This was a well-publicized act of bioterrorism. It motivated efforts to define biodefense and biosecurity, where more limited definitions of biosafety had focused on unintentional or accidental impacts of agricultural and medical technologies).

See also Chemical warfare, asymmetric warfare, biosecurity, Weapon of mass destruction

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