This paper reflects the research and thoughts of a student at the time the paper was written for a course at Bryn Mawr College. Like other materials on Serendip, it is not intended to be "authoritative" but rather to help others further develop their own explorations. Web links were active as of the time the paper was posted but are not updated.

Contribute Thoughts | Search Serendip for Other Papers | Serendip Home Page

Biology 103
2001 First Web Report
On Serendip

Risking Biological Warfare

Christy Cox

Ye olde biological warfare

The use of biological weaponry is actually far from a recent development. In 1346, for example, the Tatars catapulted the bodies of plague victims into the city of Caffar, weakening the enemy as well as contributing to the spread of the Black Plague (1a). It seems that people bent on destroying other people can be quite inventive, and they know who their enemies are. They also appreciate the utility of setting their enemies upon their enemies. Thus during the height of the Black Plague, it was reported that bodies of dead soldiers and 2000 cartloads of excrement were thrown into the advancing enemy at Carrolstein ((1b)). During the civil war, confederate soldiers commonly tossed dead animal carcasses into wells and ponds on northern territories. And a British colonel in New England once suggested blankets infected with smallpox as an effective means of quieting Native Americans (1a).

However, while the threat of biological saboteauge by one's enemies has long existed, it is true that recent technological advancements have made massive biological attack much more feasible. Response to the increasing biological threat has been developing slowly in the form of increased awareness and response policy development, although the U.S.' preparedness for biological attacks seems far from encouraging. (Current U.S. policy calls for predominantly a law enforcement response (2).)

Biological whatfare?

Biological warfare involves the deliberate use of biological agents to incapacitate or kill an ‘enemy'. It is usually referenced in conjunction with chemical warfare. These two forms are actually quite different, but their manufacture and relative utility for destruction make them somewhat interchangeable in the lingo of military risk assessment. The main difference between biological and chemical agents is that biological agents occur in nature, whereas chemical agents are manufactured synthetically. Biological agents lend themselves to warfare by virtue of their ease of production, stability, infectivity, and toxicity (1c). Some biological agents that are spotlighted as potentially dangerous include bacillus anthracis (anthrax), botulinum toxin (botulism), yersinia pestis (bubonic plague), smallpox and the ebola virus (3).

The poor man's bomb

Biological weapons can easily be manufactured under the front of vaccine production. And while I have not found precise basis for such claims as the development of biological weapons would cost less than $100,000, require five biologists, and take just a few weeks using equipment that is readily available (4), the general agreement is that biological warfare is highly appealing to those lacking the resources to compete with more ‘conventional' weapons, i.e. fighter jets and cruise missiles. Unfortunately, as fast as expanding technology provides cures for all sorts of human ailments, it is also opening a window of opportunity for mass destruction.

U.S. research into biological weaponry reportedly began during World War II, and by 1969, a number of successful tests had been performed involving aerosals. However, that very same year President Nixon ended the testing and declared such tactics the wrong course for the country. His reasoning was that the U.S. was already well-prepared with nucleur weapons and would not be wise to open doors to other forms of destruction that might become available to U.S. enemies (5). Thus, the United States (far from a poor man country from a worldly perspective), became a leader among the efforts to ban biological warfare. In 1972, the Biological Weapons Convention ratified a treaty to ban offensive biological weapon development. Today that treaty has been signed by over 160 countries (5).

However, despite such agreements, there has been much evidence and some proof of chemical and biological weapons use in recent history. Targets of such tactics include Laos in the 1970s, Kampurhea (70s and 80s), Aghanistan (1980s), Iran (1980s), and Iraqi Kurds (1988) (1c). Biological and chemical weaponry has also proved itself useful among terrorist organizations. In 1995 the Aum shinrikyo terrorist group released a toxic substance in Tokyo's subway, eventually killing 12 people. This same group was later found to have experimented with botulism and anthrax ((6)). Bioterrorism is an appealing alternative to small groups lacking the funds to accumulate arms sufficient to threaten large amounts of people.

So what can we do?

The desire to protect oneself against possible biological attacks is natural. Because biological agents require respiration, gas masks are an obvious consideration. A protective mask was actually designed by Leonardo de Vinci six centuries ago, and in the United States a device was first patented in 1847 (1a). However, the feasibility of an entire population always going about wearing protective facial gear seems somewhat doubtful. Such images raise questions not only of just how would one eat, but concerning quality of life in general. Similarly, I find ideas about living in controlled underground spaces are somewhat unappealing.

What has come up repeatedly in my research on biowarfare defense preparation is the need for a force that can respond quickly and decisively to the appearance of such a threat (1a), (7), (1d). This is also somewhat scary, because it conjures images of police control and quarantines. Such action, theough perhaps necessary, does approach the line between protection and supression in a way that is always frightening. Medical personell need to be called upon to assess risk and respond to threats quickly; the debatable question involves the degree of necessary police and military control.

Other important defense also options exist, including vaccinations and antibiotics. These must be developed for specific biological threats, but they would be most effective. For such a system to work, the medical community must be kept abreast of the latest threatening agents and then work to find the cure. This is obviously an expensive approach, and one can only hope that such vaccinations would be equally available to all classes of people, if they ever became truly necessary (8).

In conclusion

The risk of biological threats to the United States is an obvious recent concern. The September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center Towers have brought home the realities of all kinds of warfare. The United States has chosen to pursue a war against terrorism, and many people have raised questions about what exactly that entails. I feel it is somewhat unlikely that Afghanistan, a country unable to feed its people and already involved in a civil war, is going to be able to respond to U.S. attacks in kind. The United States was correct when it assessed its military power and decided it didn't need biological weapons. But I hope that it has not underestimated the importance of such options to other groups.

Many individuals have stressed the risks of bioterrorist attacks and chemical warfare, and many worry that the U.S. is illprepared to respond to such an attack. In 1996, CIA director John M. Deutch testified to the senate that, The ability of our country or, I might say, any other country in the developed world to protect their infrastructure from a terrorist attack based on nuclear, chemical or biological weapons is very, very small indeed (4). Sam Nunn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Comittee in 1995 declared that the number one security challenge in the United Stutes now and probably for years ahead is to prevent these weapons of mass destruction, whether chemical, biolog ical or nuclear - and the scientific knowl edge of how to make them-from going all over the world, to rogue groups, to terrorist groups, to rogue nations (4). Since that time, I do not know exactly what advancements have been made to prepare our country from such attacks. However, I do feel strongly that we have recently guaranteed that we will have to deal them. Regardless, it is my fervent hope that future suffering, both here and abroad, can be minimized.

WWW Sources

1) Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare , military report linked from NBC news website

a) Chapter 2: History of Chemical and Biological Warfare: An American Perspective

b) Chapter 18 Historical Overview of Biological Warfare

c) Chapter 1: Overview: Defense Against the Effects of Chemical and Biological Warfare Agents

d) Chapter 19: The U.S. Biological Warfare and Biological Defense Programs

2) Federal Response Plan , detail of Presidential Decision Directive 39, linked from the Federation of American Scientists' Intelligence Resource Program page

3) Potential Biological Agents, Scientific American

4) Chemical and Biological Weapons: The Poor Man's Bomb , draft general report linked from the Federation of American Scientists' Intelligence Resource Program page

5) Frequently Asked Questions , PBS Frontline Report: Plague War

6) Biological Warfare Against Japan and American Bases During 1990-1995 Reported by NY Times: a summary of an open-source report from the New York Times dated 26 May 1998, linked from The School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies homepage

7) Chemical and Biological Warfare Unmasked , by Joseph D. Douglass Jr., The Wall Street Journal, November 2, 1995

8) Defense Against Biological Weapons , Scientific American




| Back to Biology 103 | Back to Biology | Back to Serendip |

Send us your comments at Serendip
© by Serendip 1994- - Last Modified: Friday, 04-Jan-2002 16:53:15 EST