Bioweapons Then and Now

“Bioterrorism could kill more than nuclear war – but no one is ready to deal with it,” says Bill Gates at the recent Munich Security Conference (Washington Post, 2017). His remarks focused on the world’s governments’ relative lack of preparation to respond to any pandemic, manmade or not. Although the probabilities of either large-scale war event are low, the potential threat of a deadly biological weapon on major civilian areas is high. Even developed countries’ public health regulations and precautions could provide little defense towards a virulent, engineered microbe.

Bioweapons were originally considered in the same league as chemical weapons until germ theory and epidemiology were well understood. After use in World War I, chemical weapons faced opposition by the public and many governments around the world for its inhumane killing mechanism. The Geneva Protocol, signed 1925, prohibited chemical weapon use primarily – bioweapon use was included on the virtue of similar unconventionality. While bioweapons were ineffective for the short battlefield timescales, some saw the wartime advantages of using them to cripple enemy cities, economies, and supplies. The Protocol did not have binding restrictions nor enforcement, and states such as France and the Soviet Union pursued bioweapon research and development under intense secrecy. According to the Guillemin chapter, a few visionary scientists were responsible for advocating for and heading the state-sponsored programs in the face of adverse international treaties and public opinion. This stands in contrast with scientists’ attitudes towards nuclear weapons, who were more reluctant to aid in development after recognizing its destructive power. As a few countries developed bioweapons under secrecy, the threat of the unknown spurred other countries to adopt defensive programs to understand bioweapons. These programs gradually expanded into offensive capabilities. For example, the U.S. tested how sprayed microbials might spread in a metropolitan area by releasing a benign bacteria over San Francisco in 1950 (PBS, 2017). Fortunately, these weapons were never used and President Richard Nixon denounced them completely in 1969. Not much later, 151 parties signed the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972 which formally banned development, production, and possession of bioweapons.

Today, bioterrorism is a more likely source of biological attacks. It requires malicious intent, process know-how, and the right supplies – all of which are available. While crude nuclear devices can also be fashioned with general ease, domestic and international nuclear activity is much more closely monitored than biological research is. It would be rather difficult to regulate and restrict activities that could be precursors to bioweapons. Rather, governments may only have responsive measures to counter this form of terrorism, of which Bill Gates claims governments have not seriously considered yet. — Frank

5 thoughts on “Bioweapons Then and Now

  1. Compared to nuclear weapons — with their overwhelming destructive power and dramatic reputation — bioweapons are far more insidious. When people think of terror attacks they think of 9/11, not the multiple attacks by the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo in the 1990s that utilized bioweapon BoNT. However, these issues should be considered to be at least on equal ground. There are two reasons I believe these biological weapons to be a risk with higher likelihood and impact than the often-discussed nuclear weapons.
    First, in general, medical research supplies are easier to obtain than weapons grade nuclear materials, especially by non-state entities like terror groups. As Frank mentioned in the above post, not only is there less government focus on biological research than on nuclear weapons, there is little the government could do even if they did make monitoring bioweapon research a priority. A terror group could, after all, operate under the guise of well-meaning medical research.
    Second, as technology progresses the creation of such weapons becomes simpler and their potential destructive power grows. Diseases have, in the past, decimated human populations with no outward help from a guiding hand. Imagine one loosed on a city’s population strategically through the water supply or public transport — imagine it being highly contagious. It would be contained but only, as Frank mentions, through responsive measures that would vary from one situation to the next.
    In conclusion, completely agree with both Bill Gates’ and Frank’s assessment of this risk as one with underestimated potential for widespread damage.

  2. Bioweapons have many appeals to terrorist groups and guerillas over other conventional or even nuclear weapons. The first edge is the handiness. Most poisonous gases and biological weapons can exist in liquid or powder state, making its transportation very convenient. An immediate example is the Tokyo subway sarin attack in 1995. It took only 0.9-litter liquid sarin in a plastic bag for each of five Aum Shinrikyo terrorists to end up killing 15 people and injuring about two thousand civilians in total. They simply put a hole on the plastic bags with their umbrella in highly crowded stations and could run away before anyone noticed them. More surprisingly, it was later revealed that the religious group actually released aerosolized Bacillus Anthracis on the top of their 8-story headquarters in 1993, which eventually failed to inflict any human casualty due to its poor execution. These cases reveal that terrorist groups, or even highly motivated individuals, can secretly prepare an attack outside any police monitoring and incur an enormous damage with a pretty simple plan.

    The second appeal is its accessibility. Sarin gas is known for its simple making process; an amateur chemist is capable of creating a lethal amount, despite the danger of poisoning oneself if done without professional devices. Furthermore, biochemical weapons are more susceptible to theft or intercept due to both their handiness and relatively low-level security measures. In June 2015, the US Department of Defense announced that it has mistakenly shipped living B. Anthracis to 51 facilities in South Korea, Australia, Canada and the US via Fedex. It took five days for the DOD to find out that the samples that were supposed to be deactivated were actually alive and notify the recipients. There was no casualties, but it definitely exemplifies that such dangerous materials are often exposed to poor safety precautions and bureaucratic inadequacy. For any terrorist groups, biochemical weapons are both a cost-efficient and manpower-efficient option, mainly due to its handiness and relatively high availability.

  3. Frank and Katherine, in their posts, have both assessed that there is a significant likelihood of bioterrorism. They attributed this mainly to the idea that biological agents for malignant purposes can be more easily obtained or produced, and are less carefully monitored by governments. I find this assessment to be flawed as there are in fact numerous policies in place for biosecurity.

    The US Congress first introduced security controls on dangerous pathogens in the late 1990s, after an incident in 1995 revealed the lack of government regulation in the area. Likewise, a section was added to the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1996 defining dangerous “Select Agents” as those declared by the US Department of Health and Human Services or the US Department of Agriculture to have to have the “potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety”. The act demanded registration and strict regulation of all US domestic facilities that sell, transfer, or receive any of the listed biological agents.

    Following the anthrax attacks in 2001, Congress responded again with a flurry of new legislation. The Select Agent Rule in the USA Patriot Act of 2002, for example, demanded closer monitoring of the various Select Agents as well as individuals and facilities, which aimed to tighten measures in tracking who can have access to listed pathogens and toxins, what pathogens have been handled and studied, and where they have been used, and reduce the risk of diversion for hostile purposes. The Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act in 2002 also mandated the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service of the US Department of Agriculture to develop, maintain, and monitor a separate list of pathogens and toxins that pose a severe threat to livestock or crops.

    Despite such policies, I concur that the risk of bioterrorism cannot be fully eliminated. Loopholes can exist and failures in regulation can occur. The recent emergence of synthetic genomics promises to complicate existing policies by making it possible to resurrect extinct viruses or to create novel viruses that do not exist in nature, and high-throughput DNA synthesisers may eventually bring the synthesis of large viruses and even small bacteria into the realm of feasibility. Nonetheless, it seems that biosecurity policy is rather young compared to legislation surrounding nuclear weapons. There is much room for development and system strengthening, especially in the rapidly expanding sphere of biomedical technology advancements – policy simply needs to keep up.

  4. Lisa notes that in the past few decades Congress has advanced legislation in a bid to confront the threat of bioterrorism. This legislation surely lowered the potential for a terrorist attack using biological weapons. However, that the risk has been acknowledged and cursorily dealt with by Congress does not account for the relative lack of importance / fear that biowarfare holds in the public imagination. As Frank detailed in his post, Bill Gates (who, I’m sure has much expert knowledge behind him) asserts that biowarfare could be more destructive than any other type of warfare. Yet, as far as I can tell, the threat of nuclear war and chemical weapons (Taek notes, for example, sarin gas) seem much more omnipresent in this day and age. Perhaps this is because we have seen the devastating effects of those types of warfare. We know that nuclear war is horrific because of our knowledge of the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, and the associated terror of the next half-century during the Cold War. We know that chemical warfare is horrific because we have seen the harrowing pictures of the victims of the Assad regime’s use of chlorine gas in Syria. Meanwhile, no such biowarfare has ever been carried out.

    Were an act of biowarfare / terrorism to happen, perhaps the images associated with it would be less gruesome, but the overall impact on the target could potentially be far more destructive. According to the Department of Homeland Security, bioweapons come in many forms: for example, a toxin placed in a city’s water supply or sprayed in aerosol form over the skyline could wipe out a city. Or, a plant disease that could be unleashed on crops, diminishing agricultural production and causing famine. The effects take more time, but are no less calamitous in the end. Indeed, because of their potential for drawn-out timelines, bioweapons have the potential to harm more people, and thus ultimately may prove more destructive.

    Much of this thread has been about bioterrorism, and the threat from non-state actors, but the potential for biowarfare could perhaps be even more devastating at the hands of a nation-state. After all, states have more resources and more experts to actually develop weapons of maximum impact and efficiency. Plus, states might be better able to keep such programs hidden and better able to deploy the weapons (esp. in the face of the legislation that Lisa noted). According to the Federation of American Scientists, North Korea, for example, has been working on developing biological weapons since the 1960s – interesting how there is so much angst over North Korea’s nuclear program, but that its potentially more devastating foray into biological weapons has gone all but unremarked on in the press. It seems that we are somewhat stuck in the Cold War-era mindset of nuclear nuclear nuclear. Nuclear warfare is without a doubt a disturbing prospect, but we must not neglect the daunting prospect of biological warfare.

  5. Chris you raise a good point. It seems that bio-terrorism does not get the attention it deserves. I think the reason for it, however, is not that it is overlooked unintentionally. I believe that either countries are developing these weapons in secret or countries have reached the collective conclusion that nuclear warheads would do the job of destroying another civilization just fine and there is simply no need for biological weapons.

    Though, as Lisa noted, the government has tightened security measures on pathogens to limit and track their movement by companies that have registered to work with such agents—the policies have all been made fairly recently and are not as controlling as those imposed on nuclear facilities. So why is the US distinguishing so heavily between the two deadly forms of attack?

    Perhaps it is simply that the government is more concerned with attacks by other nation states—which as you noted Chris—have greater destructive capabilities. As 178 states have now signed the BWC—short for “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their DestructIon,” outlawing the use of such weapons, an attack from another nation-state is likely to not be biological—at least in theory—(the BWC lacks verification measures that the International Atomic Energy Agency has).

    Yet, as you all have noted above. It would likely be easier for a terrorist to construct and distribute a biological agent than to construct a nuke. Thus, I believe the government has been paying attention to bio-terrorism on an appropriate scale, as an attack is only likely to come from a small player and the appropriate health infrastructure and preventive measures could negate the effectiveness of this attack.

    Where I get confused, however, is when I consider why 178 states would agree to such a treaty as to ban the use and stock piling of such weapons? If states do not wish to use biological weapons as they do not wish to open the door to a retaliation attack and expose their populations to such a devastating blow as to get hit with a biological weapon why don’t they feel the same way about nuclear weapons? If these weapons are viewed as too inhumane—as they lack the ability to distinguish between soldier and civilian—why do we not have the same treaty for nuclear weapons? If we now accept the premise that part of the government’s job is to wield a weapon great enough to destroy those that seek to harm us or to prevent those from attacking us in the first place—which is why we created the atom bomb in the first place—and we haven’t been pursing biological weapons, the unfortunate, but only, conclusions that I was able to get to was that either we are creating such weapons in secret or we believe in our ability to cause enough harm and damage to another country with a nuclear weapon—and need not more destructive power.

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