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