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Silent Weapons—How Real Is the Threat?

Silent Weapons—How Real Is the Threat?

 Silent Weapons​—How Real Is the Threat?

ATTEMPTS to kill by disease in times of war are not new. During the 14th century, in eastern Europe, the corpses of plague victims were catapulted over the walls of a city under siege. In an incident 400 years later, British officers deliberately gave smallpox-infected blankets to American Indians at a peace parley during the French and Indian War. This triggered an epidemic that contributed to the Indian surrender. However, it was not until the end of the 19th century that it was discovered that microbes cause infectious disease. This understanding opened new and terrifying possibilities for the weaponizing of disease.

Of course, medical and scientific advances have also led to the development of drugs and vaccines. These have been highly successful in the treatment and prevention of disease. Yet, despite these advances, infectious disease remains a formidable enemy, killing more than 17 million people each year​—about 50,000 each day. It is a chilling irony: While men and women of brilliance have devoted their lives to the conquest of disease in humans, others with equal zeal and skill have focused on the conquest of humans by means of disease.

Attempts to Ban Biological Weapons

For more than 25 years, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and several other nations ambitiously pursued the development of biological weapons. But in 1972 the nations agreed to ban these weapons. Some countries, however, secretly continued development and research, amassing stockpiles of deadly biological agents, along with the means to deliver them.

What led to the official ban on such weapons? According to the thinking of the early 1970’s, biological agents, though highly lethal, are poor battlefield weapons. One reason for this is that their effect is not immediate ​—it takes time for symptoms to appear. Another reason is that their effectiveness depends on fluctuations of wind and weather. Further, nations realized that if one nation used bioweapons against another nation, the target nation would likely retaliate with its own arsenal of bioweapons or with nuclear weapons. Finally, many people felt a moral repugnance against deliberately deploying living organisms to disable or kill fellow humans.

None of these reasons are likely to deter people who are seething with hatred and who are willing to act outside traditional moral standards. To those bent on indiscriminate killing, biological weapons have enormous appeal. Bioweapons can be secretly developed and deployed. The identity of the attacker can be concealed, and if the attacker is known, it is not easy to retaliate against a terrorist network with cells in many countries. Moreover, a silent, invisible, slow-acting, and deadly biological attack can destabilize a population through panic alone. Attacks against crops or livestock can cause food shortages and economic disaster.

Another incentive is the relatively low cost of biological weapons development. One analysis compared the cost of using various weapons to kill the unprotected civilians in an area of one square mile. The estimated cost using conventional weapons was put at $5,000 [$2,000 per sq km], nuclear weapons $2,000 [$800 per sq km], nerve-gas weapons $1,500 [$600 per sq km], and biological weapons $2.50 [$1 per sq km].

Technological Hurdles for Terrorists

Reports in the media say that some terrorist groups have experimented with biological weapons. Yet, there is a huge difference between experimenting with biological weapons and launching an effective attack with them.

To be successful, a terrorist or terrorist organization has to overcome formidable technical challenges. First, the terrorist has to obtain a sufficiently lethal strain of a disease pathogen. Second, he must know how to handle and store the pathogen correctly and safely. Third, he must know how to produce it in bulk. Tiny amounts of a microorganism are lethal enough to ravage a field of crops, a herd of animals, or a city of people, assuming the pathogen is delivered precisely to the target. However, biological agents do not survive well outside the laboratory. In reality only a fraction of the biological agent would reach the target population, so vastly larger amounts would be needed to launch a catastrophic attack.

There is more. The terrorist must understand how to keep the pathogen alive and potent during transport from the place where it is kept to the place where it will be released. Finally, he needs to know how to disperse the pathogen effectively. This involves ensuring that the pathogen is delivered to the target in the right particle size, over a large enough geographical area, and in sufficient concentration to cause mass infection. It took more than ten years for a highly trained team of U.S. germ-warfare researchers to produce a reliable bioweapons delivery system. Once a biological agent has been dispersed into the atmosphere, it is exposed to sunlight and varying temperatures, which can cause the microorganism to die. Weaponizing an agent, therefore, calls for detailed knowledge of the behavior of biological organisms in the air.

 Considering the array of technological hurdles involved, it is not surprising that few terrorist attacks with biological weapons have been attempted. What is more, those attempts produced few casualties. Recently, anthrax-laced letters killed five people in the United States. That is tragic enough, but the casualties were fewer than might have occurred from a small explosive or even a pistol. Researchers calculate that since 1975, in 96 percent of the attacks worldwide in which chemical or biological agents were used, no more than three people were killed or injured.

Recognizing the difficulties involved in launching a successful biological attack, the British American Security Information Council stated: “Though governments face a multitude of threats of chemical and biological terrorism most analysts believe that the catastrophic scenarios involving mass casualties, though possible, are highly unlikely to occur.” But while the probability may be low, the consequences of such an attack could be horrendous.

The Bad News

So far, we have presented the positive news: Both technological difficulties and history argue against the likelihood of catastrophic biological attacks. The bad news, simply stated, is this: History is not a clear guide to the future. Though past attacks have largely failed, future ones may succeed.

There are concerns. Growing numbers of terrorists seem determined to kill large numbers of people. Not only is the technological sophistication of terrorist groups growing but some terrorist groups have financial and technical resources that are comparable to those of some governments.

Experts do not seem to worry about nations handing over biological weapons to terrorist groups. One analyst said: “Governments, however ruthless, ambitious, and ideologically extreme, will be reluctant to pass on unconventional weapons to terrorist groups over which they cannot have full control; the governments may be tempted to use such arms themselves in a first strike, but it is more probable that they would employ them in blackmail than in actual warfare.” What does worry experts is that highly trained scientists may be recruited with lucrative offers to work for terrorist groups.

Disease by Design

Advances in biotechnology are also a matter of concern. Scientists already have the know-how to alter existing pathogens to make them extraordinarily lethal yet easier to handle. They can genetically alter harmless microorganisms to produce toxins. Organisms can also be manipulated so that they will escape standard detection methods. Further, microorganisms can be designed to  resist antibiotics, standard vaccines, and therapies. Scientists who defected from the former Soviet Union, for example, claimed to have developed a form of plague that was resistant to 16 antibiotics.

Future developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering are expected to expand the options. Scientists can reshuffle the genetic deck to redesign or fashion a multitude of biological weapons​—deadlier, hardier, and easier to produce and deliver. They could be tailored so that their effects would be more easily predicted and controlled. Pathogens might be designed to die after a predetermined number of cell divisions​—they would kill and then vanish.

 Extraordinary weapons of stealth might also be developed in the future. For example, highly specific weapons could disable the immune system itself​—rather than being infected with a specific disease, a victim would be susceptible to many diseases. If such a lethal AIDS-like virus surfaces, who is to know whether the source is a natural mutation or a genetic manipulation concocted in the laboratory of an enemy?

Technological advances have changed the thinking of military minds. One U.S. naval officer wrote: “Weaponeers have only just begun to explore the potential of the biotechnological revolution. It is sobering to realize that far more development lies ahead than behind.”

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What Is Biological Warfare?

The term “biological warfare” refers to the deliberate spreading of disease among humans, animals, or plants. Disease occurs when the target population is infected by living microorganisms. These organisms multiply (some producing toxins), and in time the symptoms of the disease become evident. Some biological weapons cause incapacitation, others death. Still others can be used to attack and destroy crops.

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Bioweapon Fact Sheet

Anthrax: An infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium. Early symptoms of inhalation anthrax may resemble a common cold. After several days, symptoms progress to severe breathing problems and shock. This form of anthrax is often fatal.

In people exposed to anthrax, infection can be prevented with antibiotics. Early treatment is vital; delay reduces the chances for survival.

Direct person-to-person spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely and may not occur at all.

In the second half of the 20th century, anthrax was developed as a weapon by several countries, including the United States and the former Soviet Union. The number of nations thought to have biological weapons programs has risen from 10 in 1989 to 17 in 1995. It is unclear how many of these countries are working with anthrax. According to one assessment by the U.S. government, the release of 220 pounds [100 kg] of aerosolized anthrax over a major city could be as lethal as a hydrogen bomb.

Botulism: A muscle-paralyzing disease caused by a toxin-producing bacterium. The symptoms of foodborne botulism include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and dry mouth. Muscle weakness descends through the body from the shoulders down. Paralysis of breathing muscles can cause death. Botulism is not spread from one person to another.

An antitoxin, if administered early enough, reduces the severity of the symptoms and the likelihood of death.

Botulinum toxin is a prime choice as a bioweapon not only because it is one of the most poisonous substances known but also because it is relatively easy to produce and transport. In addition, those infected require prolonged intensive care. Several countries are suspected of developing botulinum toxin as a biological weapon.

Plague: A highly infectious disease caused by a bacterium. The first signs of the lethal pneumonic plague are fever, headache, weakness, and cough. Septic shock will follow, and without early treatment with antibiotics, death is almost certain.

The disease passes from person to person through saliva droplets.

During the 14th century, within five years plague killed about 13 million people in China and 20 million to 30 million in Europe.

During the 1950’s and 1960’s, both the United States and the former Soviet Union developed techniques to spread pneumonic plague. Thousands of scientists are believed to have worked on weaponizing plague.

Smallpox: A highly infectious disease caused by a virus. Initial symptoms include high fever, fatigue, headaches, and backaches. Later, painful lesions appear that become pus filled. One in three victims dies.

Smallpox was eliminated worldwide in 1977. Routine smallpox vaccination ended in the mid 1970’s. The level of immunity, if any, among people who were vaccinated before then is uncertain. There is no proven treatment for smallpox.

The disease spreads from person to person via infected saliva droplets. Contaminated clothing or bed linen may also spread the virus.

Beginning in 1980, the Soviet Union launched a successful program to produce large amounts of smallpox and to adapt it for delivery by intercontinental ballistic missiles. Efforts were also made to develop strains of smallpox that were more virulent and contagious.


Anthrax bacterium and spherical spore

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Sources: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Biodefense Studies.

Anthrax victim: CDC, Atlanta, Ga.; anthrax bacterium: ©Dr. Gary Gaugler, Photo Researchers; botulism bacterium: CDC/Courtesy of Larry Stauffer, Oregon State Public Health Laboratory

Plague bacterium: Copyright Dennis Kunkel Microscopy, Inc.; smallpox virus: ©Meckes, Gelderblom, Eye of Science, Photo Researchers; smallpox victim: CDC/NIP/Barbara Rice

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Recently, anthrax-laced letters caused widespread fear

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AP Photo/Axel Seidemann

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Chemical/biological aerial bombs destroyed after the Gulf War

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AP Photo/MOD