History of Biological Weapons and Warfare



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Casey Gailey 1

Biological Warfare: Preventing a Preplanned Plague

History of Biological Weapons and Warfare

While not as widely publicized as other methods, biological warfare has been utilized by man for centuries. This is not to say that the ancient methodology was anywhere near the complexity of modern biological warfare. Early examples of biological weaponization date centuries ago with the use of amphibian-based toxins for arrow poisons by nomadic people such as some South American tribes (Miller 6) and blood from the decaying corpses of venomous adder snakes used as poisons for Scythian arrows (Johnson). Because ancient civilizations did not have the knowledge of microbiology, they could not typically provide the types of widespread devastation that have defined modern biological methods as Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMD. Despite this, even the crude application of toxins and pathogens can cause gross damage.

During the French and Indian War, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British troops in North America, reportedly acquired blankets and a handkerchief contaminated with smallpox from an infirmary for infected British troops in Fort Pitt, and instructed one of his aids, Captain Ecuyer, to distribute the infected material to Native Americans (Miller 6; Johnson). What is astounding about these antique practices, is that they predated the germ theory of the 1860s and 1870s, which determined microscopic organisms, “germs,” as the source of diseases spreading.

In the past century, human understanding of microbiology has dramatically increased. This knowledge has led to many advancements and saved millions of lives. New methods of identification and treatment for pathogens allows medical professionals to remedy or prevent infection and has led to further understanding of the human body. On the other hand, individuals with less beneficent plans have also achieved increased awareness.

Since the major discoveries of modern microbiology, various countries have researched and experimented with pathogens and toxins. Some of the more developed countries, though, formulated the idea of using the new methodologies to isolate specific pathogens and toxins for use as national offensive or defensive weapons. Germany is one country that is known to have undertaken more sophisticated experiments with biological warfare as early as World War I. After the Great War, scientists found evidence that Germany had organized a biological warfare program which attempted to covertly sabotage the United States and France by inoculating farm animals (Miller 6; Johnson). In particular, cultures confiscated from the Bucharest Institute of Bacteriology and Pathology contained bacteria such as Bacillus anthracis and Bacillus mallei, commonly known as anthrax and glanders respectively (Johnson).

The first real, though ineffective, attempt to prohibit biological agents as weapons occurred following World War I. The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibited the use of “bacteriological methods” as weapons (“Protocol for the Prohibition” 3). Despite the intent of the Protocol, countries still used germ weaponry. Japan, for instance, used pathogenic agents on a large scale against prisoners as well as eleven Chinese cities between 1932 and the end of World War II (Miller 7). The devastation of Japan’s experiments exposed the true power of biological agents and, considering that the devastation was the result of mere experiments, it showcased just how grotesquely effective such agents could be if used in actual wartime situations.

Thankfully, more recent treaties such as the Biological Weapons Convention, or BWC, entered into force in 1975 and prohibits State Parties to “develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain” biological agents or toxins “of types and in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes” or which are intended for “hostile purposes or in armed conflict” (“Biological Weapons Convention”). This treaty is still in place and most countries have complied with the demands. The weakness of this treaty, however, is that, despite the United Nations enforcing it, it is extremely difficult to obtain physical evidence if any country does break it. After all, if a country were to engineer germ weapons in a pharmaceutical building, etc., there would be little to no evidence gathered by drones or spies.

History of the Plague

Plague is a disease caused by the bacteria Yersinia pestis. It is one of the most devastating maladies mankind has ever faced, historically causing mass deaths, even wiping out entire populations at times. In recorded history, there have been three major pandemics of plague: The Justinian Plague, the Great Plague, and the Modern Plague (“Plague: History”).

The Justinian Plague, named after Byzantine emperor Justinian I, began in 541 CE and continued with reoccurring outbreaks in the following two hundred years; it killed tens of millions of people of the Mediterranean basin (“Plague: History”).

The Great Plague, also known as the Black Death, devastated Europe in the thirteenth century. Believed to have originated in China, the pandemic struck Europe in the 1330s and decimated approximately 60% of the European population in a few years (“Plague: History”). This is the most well-known of the plague pandemics.

The Modern Plague was the most recent major outbreak, taking place primarily in China during the mid- to late-eighteen hundreds (“Plague: History”). Despite the millions of deaths, this epidemic led to the identification of rats and fleas as the source of bubonic plague.

Today, small outbreaks of plague still occur naturally in endemic areas. Africa faces the most yearly cases of plague, as well as parts of Asia and South America (“Plague: Maps”). Even the US handles a handful of cases in the West and Southwest, particularly in the New Mexico-Arizona-Colorado region (“Plague: Maps”).

While the most cataclysmic plague pandemics have, as far as experts have discovered, been natural occurrences, humans have also used the disease as a biological weapon. Before it arrived in Europe for the Black Death, the plague traversed much of Asia and the Middle East to slink its way to Eastern Europe. The first known utilization of plague as a weapon occurred through this time during the Siege of Kaffa. The Tartar army laid siege to the port town Kaffa, in modern day Ukraine (Miller 6). During the standstill, the plague creeping its way into Europe infected the Tartar army, and, realizing the deadly results of the disease, Tartar soldiers catapulted the infected corpses of their comrades over the city walls of Kaffa to purposefully poison the city’s inhabitants (Miller 6; Johnson).

As previously mentioned, Japan organized extensive experimentations with biological weapons from 1932 until the end of World War II. One of the pathogens used in the Japanese research was Y. pestis (Miller 7). Scientists contrived an ingeniously depraved plan to inoculate fleas with the bacteria from rats and then release the contaminated fleas from planes over Chinese cities (Johnson). This method was particularly inventive because at the time, the actual bacteria were difficult to isolate, and so pneumonic plague couldn’t be used as a weapon since that involves the bacteria in the air being inhaled, yet this method allowed a crude, but equally widespread way to infect people. It wasn’t as direct because the victims had to be bitten by the fleas to develop the infection, but it was a major step in the development of plague as a WMD.



Why is Biological Warfare a Threat to the US?

Weapons derived from bacteria are rising as a national threat to the US. While the Biological Warfare Convention, and the United Nations which enforces it, regulates state development of germ weapons, there are no set methods to ensure that countries abide by the treaty. Theoretically, and probably occurring in some countries, states may be developing biological weapons.

Within the United States borders, it is difficult for individuals or groups to produce biological weapons because proper facilities and instruments are needed as well as the education required to safely develop highly infectious cultures. However, bacteriological weapons have the unique ability to affect widespread areas from singular sources. In other words, if an individual were to attain even a small culture of an infectious disease he could easily enough infect himself or others living in urban areas; if he infected himself in New York, for instance, he could quickly contaminate hundreds of people.

The US government tested the prospect of a biological attack on various major targets. In the 1940s and 1950s, a Special Operations Division of the US Army’s Chemical Corps led experiments by releasing airborne bacteria into the Pentagon’s air system and from Navy ships off the coasts of Norfolk, Virginia, and San Francisco, California (“Secret Testing”). Had the supposedly harmless bacteria been something more deadly, thousands of citizens would have been infected and possibly killed. Further field tests released model bacteria from generators in cities like St. Louis and Minneapolis and from planes travelling from South Dakota to Minnesota, Ohio to Texas, and Michigan to Kansas (“Secret Testing”). Once more, the mock-pathogens traversed enough area to contaminate thousands. Additional experiments in the 1960s released bacteria in the National Airport and in the New York subway system (“Secret Testing”).

More recently, US government agencies have utilized exercises which focus on the theoretical reaction to outbreaks, rather than actually spreading pathogens (Stern). The exercises suggested that hospitals would quickly exhaust antibiotic and vaccine supplies, first responders are inefficiently trained to handle such situations, and local, state and federal agencies are poorly coordinated (Stern). Needless to say, if an enemy of the United States procured an airborne pathogen and managed to release it to highly populated areas, the US could not protect itself.

Why would someone want to cause such devastation in the first place? For mankind’s ancient goals: Power and security. In the movie V for Vendetta, for example, a futuristic society is controlled by a totalitarian government. However, the tyrannical government only achieved power over the society after creating a deadly virus and infecting innocent civilians with it (V for Vendetta). The virus decimated the population and instigated panic in the civilians; then the regiment provided the cure for the virus (V for Vendetta). As the civilians rushed to procure the only vaccination, the regiment took control of the economy of the society and then used the financial backing as well as the adoration of the ignorant civilians, who saw the regiment as a savior rather than the villain, to legally replace their government with the totalitarian regiment (V for Vendetta).

Of course the movie represents a tremendous exaggeration; however, it suggests the idea that a group capable of creating biological weapons, could genetically engineer a new pathogen for which no one else has developed a vaccine for. Moreover, the movie also emphasizes the effects of biological terrorism in creating mass hysteria, which can lead to distorted and illogical thinking. In an actual biological war, this would inhibit the assailed people in countering the attack, because they would struggle to keep a clear mind for trying to treat the infected, create medicine, and protect themselves from the infection.

Why is Plague a Threat to the US?

So how is plague specifically a threat to the US? Firstly, there are three primary types of plague: Pneumonic, bubonic, and septicemic. Pneumonic plague infects the lungs and spreads more easily because the bacteria can be released from infected persons through the water exhaled from respiration (“Facts about Pneumonic Plague”). Bubonic plague is more common and infects humans typically through the bite of infected fleas; in this type, individuals develop characteristic swollen lymph glands, called buboes (“Facts about Pneumonic Plague”). Septicemic plague infects the blood and results from the bite of infected fleas, but buboes do not develop (“Facts about Pneumonic Plague”). While bubonic plague is the most infamous, pneumonic plague is actually why the pathogen is categorized as a Category A Disease. Category A agents or diseases are those which are declared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, also known as the CDC, as the most high-priority agents that may constitute a risk to national security (“Bioterrorism”). Other examples of Category A are anthrax and smallpox.

Furthermore, symptom development of pneumonic plague typically is delayed by a few days, so once it infects an individual, he can still travel and infect others silently. Plague also must be treated with antibiotics “preferably within 24 hours” after symptoms appear to prevent high risk of death (“Emergency Preparedness and Response”). Because of the delay in symptoms, this disease would spread quickly, especially in urban settings, and if large enough populations were infected simultaneously, hospitals would struggle to treat everyone at once, leading to high death tolls, despite the fact that fairly common antibiotics can treat it early on.

In addition to the calamitous effects of the pathogen itself, Inglesby et al. in the article “Plague as a Biological Weapon,” states that Russian scientists in particular are known to have manufactured plague as an “agent suitable for placing in weapons” and that thousands of scientists of the former Soviet Union claim to have worked with the disease before the program was disbanded. While the US and Russia aren’t necessarily antagonistic right now, if another war occurs in the future, placing the two countries to opposing sides, Russia probably retained the research and will be able to manufacture plague weapons again, and might distribute the methodology to its allies.



US Preventive Measures

For biological attacks in general, the US government has a few measures in place. Some measures include stocks of antibiotics and vaccines and isolation wards or single rooms in hospitals. Another set of measures specific for important national buildings, like the Pentagon, is the introduction of air filters to reduce the possibility of airborne pathogens within. The CDC has also expanded the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System to provide an electronic system, National Electronic Disease Surveillance System or NEDSS, which facilitates the exchange of information about diseases between the national government, forty-six states, New York City, and Washington D.C. (“National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System”). This system allows a medical facility connected to the NEDSS to quickly alert the CDC of any pathogen outbreaks, including plague.

There are currently no active preventive measures for plague specifically, however. The CDC merely recommends that residents of endemic areas reduce habitat and food supplies for rodents around their homes, use flea control on any pets, disallow pets that roam freely outside from sleeping with owners, carefully handle any potentially infected animal with gloves or other protection, and use insect repellent on skin and clothes to prevent flea bites (“Plague: Prevention”). In other words, the residents should behave like typical American citizens and hope they don’t contract the disease.

One of the measures that needs to be incorporated on a national level, is a quicker method to identify pathogens. Currently, infectious diseases are primarily identified by processes such as culturing and take days to properly make a diagnosis. Bacteria, fungi, and viruses take so long to identify because scientists run DNA analyses on isolated microbes. It’s not necessarily a complex process to isolate the minute microbes from the patient’s blood, however scientists need quite a bit of DNA to run the analysis, so they use cultures to grow more of the pathogen, which takes time.

In David Ecker’s “Germ Catcher,” he describes a biosensor system, developed by his team at Ibis Biosciences, which expedites this procedure. In Ecker’s process, they use PCR to amplify particular genes from microbes (“Germ Catcher”). PCR, or polymerase chain reaction, is a way to copy DNA strands very quickly: DNA is double stranded, so PCR separates the two strands and then an enzyme, polymerase, makes a complimentary copy for each, so that instead of one double-strand, PCR amplifies it to create two identical double-strands. PCR ends up repeating that until there are thousands of copies. Primers are also used to identify a start point and stop point on the DNA strand, so the copy will only be of a particular area on the strand. Ecker uses this because he can use primers to copy particular genes in microbes, genes which are more unique to a specific organism. Then, Ecker’s process identifies the mass of the amplified DNA strands through mass spectrometry and is able to apply a mathematical formula to identify how many of each nucleotide are present (“Germ Catcher”). Nucleotides are the basic units of DNA and each one has a unique mass. After he finds out how many of each nucleotide there are in the DNA, he can cross-reference the numbers in a database and the database will be able to identify the most likely pathogen (“Germ Catcher”). If these biosensors, or others, were installed in various hospitals around the US, medical professionals might be able to identify pathogens more quickly, and alert the public to possible signs of biological warfare.

Another vital goal for bio-weapon defense is medical fortification of hospitals. As previously mentioned with Jessica Stern’s “Confronting Biological Terrorism,” exercises conducted by the government suggest that hospitals would be likely to exhaust medicinal resources quickly in the case of a biological attack. To negate this viable risk, the government should organize various laboratories to remain on call in case of emergencies; so, if there is a plague epidemic and the hospitals involved begin to exhaust their antibiotic supplies, these labs could begin to manufacture more. Currently, if a hospital needs more, it will contact other nearby hospitals and clinics, which works short term, but then those facilities would lack the medicine for any patients that may seek treatment from them. In relation to plague, agencies or corporations should put forth more research into developing a vaccine, as there is no plague vaccine available in the United States. Overall, an effective vaccine could profoundly reduce the threat of plague as a viable weapon.

On the political and social end, more stringent regulations for the Biological Weapons Convention could also lessen the risk of biological warfare. As one of the primary fallacies of the treaty is a lack of ability to ensure no country is breaking the accord, changes to allow inspection contingents comprised of delegates from multiple countries could help assure that no country is concealing illegal biological agents behind pharmaceutical businesses or so on.

Perhaps the best way to instigate reforms on preventive measures for plague is to emphasize the need for more scientific research and to publicize the reality of the disease to the general population. The research could focus on setting procedures for biosensors and creating a plague vaccine, while public awareness would lead the social reform on international policy. Moreover, these reforms could pertain to general biodefense rather than plague specifically since the same basic suggestions can apply to various biological threats, and citizens are more likely to actively join the cause if they see it as a way to stop numerous safety threats instead of one disease most civilians don’t even realize is still active in the world.

Works Cited

"Biological Weapons Convention (BWC)." Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

CDC. “Bioterrorism: Agents/ Diseases.” emergency.cdc.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

---. “Emergency Preparedness and Response: Pneumonic Plague.” emergency.cdc.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 1 March 2007. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

---. “Facts about Pneumonic Plague.” emergency.cdc.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 14 Oct. 2001. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

---. “National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System: NEDSS/ NBS.” www.cdc.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10 Dec. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

---. “Plague: History.” www.cdc.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 June 2012. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

---. “Plague: Maps.” www.cdc.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23 April 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

---. “Plague: Prevention.” www.cdc.gov. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 27 Nov. 2013. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Ecker, David J. "Germ Catcher." Scientific American 310.6 (2014): 50-55. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Oct. 2014.

Inglesby, Thomas V., et al. "Plague As A Biological Weapon." JAMA: Journal Of The American Medical Association 283.17 (2000): 2281. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.

Johnson, Thomas J. "A History of Biological Warfare from 300 BCE to the Present." aarc.org. American Association for Respiratory Care, 2009. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Miller, Judith. “Biological Weapons, Literally Older Than Methuselah.” Chemical and Biological Warfare. Ed. Brian Solomon. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1999. 5-7. Print.

“Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare. Geneva, 17 June 1925.” Chemical and Biological Warfare. Ed. Brian Solomon. New York: H.W. Wilson Company, 1999. 3-4. Print.

“Secret Testing in the United States.” www.pbs.org. WGBH Educational Foundation, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Stern, Jessica. "Confronting Biological Terrorism." Harvard International Review 23.1 (2001): 84. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2014.



V for Vendetta. Dir. James McTeigue. Perf. Hugo Weaving. Warner Brothers Entertainment, 2006. DVD.
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