Edgar J. DaSilva

Director, Section of Life Sciences, Division of Basic and Engineering Sciences, UNESCO, Paris, France

Keywords :  Biowarfare, bioterrorism, biodefense, robobiology, biosensors, and  Biological  and Chemical  Weapons Convention (BTWC)



2.Biological/Chemical Warfare Characteristics



5.Control, Monitoring, and Regulatory Systems



Related Chapters


Biographical Sketch


Biowarfare is the intentional use of microorganisms, and toxins, generally of microbial, plant or animal origin to produce disease and death in humans, livestock and crops. The attraction of bioweapons in biowarfare and bioterrorism is attributed to easy access to a wide range of disease-producing biological agents, to their low production costs, to their non-detection by routine security systems, and to their easy transportation from one place to another. Furthermore, novel and accessible technologies give rise to proliferation of such weapons that have implications for regional and global security. In counteraction of such treats, and in securing the culture and defense of peace, the need for leadership and example in devising preventive and protective strategies has been emphasized through international consultation and co-operation. Adherence to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention reinforced by confidence building measures and sustained by use of monitoring and verification protocols, is an important and necessary step in reducing and eliminating the threats of biological warfare and bioterrorism.

1. Introduction   

Biological warfare is the intentional use of microorganisms, and toxins, generally, of microbial, plant or animal origin to produce disease and/or death in humans, livestock and crops. The attraction for bioweapons in war, and for use in terroristic attacks is attributed to their low production costs, The easy access to a wide range of disease-producing biological agents, their non-detection by routine security systems, and their easy transportation from one location to another are other attractive features. Their properties of invisibility and virtual weightlessness render detection and verification procedures ineffectual and make non-proliferation of such weapons an impossibility. Consequently, national security decision-makers, defense professionals, and security personnel will increasingly be confronted by biological warfare as it unfolds in the battlefields of the future.

Current concerns regarding the use of bioweapons result from their production for use in the 1991 Gulf War; and from the increasing number of countries that are engaged in the proliferation of such weapons i.e. from about four in the mid-1970s to about 17 today. A similar development has been observed with the proliferation of chemical weapons i.e. from about 4 countries in the recent past to some 20 countries in the mid-1990s.

Other alarming issues are the contamination of the environment resulting from dump burial, the use of disease-producing microorganisms in terroristic attacks on civilian populations; and non-compliance with the 1972 Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (Table 1). Microorganisms are known to function as "pathogens and pals" as with Leishmania infections, and with Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron in the intestines of humans and mice; as "battle strains" of anthrax, bubonic plague, smallpox, Ebola virus, and as a microbe-based "double agent."

Table 1. Chronological summary of conventoins, protocols, and resolutions curbing biological warfare.

2. Biological/Chemical Warfare Characteristics   

Biological, chemical and nuclear weapons possess the common property of wreaking mass destruction. Though biological warfare is different from chemical warfare, there has always been the tendency to discuss one in terms of the other, or both together. This wide practice probably arises from the fact that the victims of such warfare are biological in origin unlike that in the Kosovo War in which destruction of civic infrastructure, and large-scale disruption of routine facilities were the primary goals, e.g. the loss of electricity supplies through the use of graphite bombs. Another consideration is that several biological agents, e.g. toxic metabolites produced by either microorganisms, animals or plants are also produced through chemical synthesis.

One of the main goals of biological warfare is the undermining and destruction of economic progress and stability. The emergence of bio-economic warfare as a weapon of mass destruction can be traced to the development and use of biological agents against economic targets such as crops, livestock and ecosystems. Furthermore, such warfare can always be carried out under the pretexts that such traumatic occurrences are the result of natural circumstances that lead to outbreaks of diseases and disasters of either endemic or epidemic proportions.

Biological and chemical warfare share several common features. Formulae and recipes for experimenting and fabricating both types of weapons result from increasing academic proficiency in biology, chemistry, engineering, and genetic manipulations. Both types of weapons, to date, have been used in bio- and chemoterroristic attacks against small groups of individuals. Again, defense measures, such as emergency responses to these types of terrorism, are unfamiliar and unknown. A general state of helplessness resulting from a total lack of preparedness and absence of decontaminating strategies further complicates the issue.

The widespread ability and interest of non-military personnel to engage in developing chemical and biologically-based weapons is linked directly to easy access to academic excellence worldwide. Another factor is the tempting misuse of freely available electronic data and knowledge concerning the production of antibiotics and vaccines, and of conventional weapons with their varying details of sophistication.

Several other factors make biological agents more attractive for weaponization, and use by terrorists in comparison to chemical agents (Table 2). Production of biological weapons has a higher cost efficiency index since financial investments are not as massive as those required for the manufacture of chemical and nuclear weapons. Again, lower casualty numbers are encountered with bigger payloads of chemical and nuclear weapons in contrast to the much higher numbers of the dead that result from the use of invisible and microgram payloads of biological agents.

Table 2. Biological and chemical warfare characteristics

To a great extent, application or delivery systems for biological agents differ with those employed for chemical and nuclear weapons. With humans and animals, systems range from the use of live vectors such as insects, pests and rodents to aerosol sprays of dried spores and infective powders. In the case of plants, proliferation of plant disease is carried out through delivery systems that use propagative material such as contaminated seeds, plant and root tissue culture materials, organic carriers such as soil and compost dressing, and use of water from contaminated garden reservoirs.

In terms of lethality, the most lethal chemical warfare agents cannot compare with the killing power of the most lethal biological agents. Amongst all lethal weapons of mass destruction---chemical, biological and nuclear, the ones most feared are bioweapons.

Biological agents listed for use in weaponization and war are many. Those commonly identified for prohibition by monitoring authorities are the causative agents of the bacterial diseases anthrax and brucellosis; the rickettsial disease Q fever; the viral disease Venezuela equine encephalitis (VEE), and several toxins such as enterotoxin and botulinum toxin.

As a rule, microbiologists have pioneered research in the development of a bioarmory comprised of powerful antibiotics, antisera, toxoids and vaccines to neutralize and eliminate a wide range of diseases (see, Production of Antibiotics and Medical Biotechnology). Despite the use of biological agents in military campaigns and wars, it is only since the mid-1980s that the attention of the military intelligence has been attracted by the spectacular breakthroughs in the life sciences. Military interest, in harnessing genetic engineering and DNA recombinant technology for updating and devising effective lethal bioweapons is spurred on by the easy availability of funding, even in times of economic regression, for contractual research leading to the development of:

Table 3. Control, preventive and monitoring activities.

3. Bioweapons   

Bioweapons are characterized by a dual-use dilemma. On a lower scale, a bioweapons production facility is a virtual routine run-of the-mill microbiological laboratory. Research with a microbial discovery in pathology and epidemiology, resulting in the development of a vaccine to combat and control the outbreak of disease could be intentionally used with the aid of genetic engineering techniques to produce vaccine-resistant strains for terroristic or warfare purposes. The best known example, reported by UNSCOM (Table 3), is the masquerading of an anthrax-weapon production facility as a routine civil biotechnological laboratory at Al Hakam. In summary the dual-use dilemma is inherent in the inability to distinctively define between offense- and defense-oriented research and development work concerning infectious diseases and toxins. Whilst progress in immunology, medicine, and the conservation of human resources are dependent on research on the very same agents of infectious diseases, bans and nonproliferation treaties are associated with the research and production of offensive bioweapons.

Genetic engineering (see, Methods in Gene Engineering), and information are increasingly open to misuse in the development and improvement of infective agents as bioweapons. Such misuse could be envisaged in the development of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, and in the enhanced invasiveness and pathogenicity of commensals. Resistance to new and potent antibiotics constitutes a weak point in the bio-based arsenal designed to protect urban and rural populations against lethal bioweapons. An attack with bioweapons using antibiotic-resistant strains could initiate the occurrence and spread of communicable diseases, such as anthrax and plague, on either an endemic or epidemic scale.

The evolution of chemical and biological weapons is broadly categorized into four phases. World War I saw the introduction of the first phase, in which gaseous chemicals like chlorine and phosgene were used in Ypres. The second phase ushered in the era of the use of nerve agents, e.g. tabun, a cholinesterase inhibitor, and the beginnings of the anthrax and the plague bombs in World War II. The Vietnam War in 1970 constituted the third phase which was characterized by the use of lethal chemical agents, e.g. Agent Orange, a mix of herbicides stimulating hormonal function resulting in defoliation and crop destruction. This phase included also the use of the new group of Novichok and mid-spectrum agents that possess the characteristics of chemical and biological agents such as auxins, bioregulators, and physiologically-active compounds. Concern has been expressed in regard to the handling and disposal of these mid-spectrum agents by "chemobio" experts rather than by biologists.

The fourth phase coincides with the era of the biotechnological revolution and the use of genetic engineering. Gene-designed organisms (see, Basic Strategies of Cell Metabolism) can be used to produce a wide variety of potential bioweapons such as:

Public attention and concerns, in recent times, have been focused on the dangers of nuclear, biological and chemical-based terrorist threats. These concerns are valid given the significant differences between the speed at which an attack results in illness and in which a medical intervention is made, the distribution of affected persons, the nature of the first response, detection of the release site of the weapon used, decontamination of the environment, and post-care of patients and victims. Pollution and alteration of natural environments occurs with the passage of time, as a consequence of reliance on conventional processes such as dumping of chemical munitions in the oceans; disposal of chemical and biological weapons through open-pit burning; and in-depth burial in soil in concrete containers or metallic coffins. Incineration, seemingly the preferred method in the destruction and disposal of chemical weapons, is in the near future likely to be replaced by microorganisms. Laboratory-scale experimentation has shown that blistering agents such as mustard mixtures e.g. lewisite and adamsite, and nerve agents e.g. tabun, sarin and saman are susceptible to the enzymatic action of Psuedomonas diminuta, Alteromonas haloplanktis, and Alcaligenes xylosoxidans. In disposing of the chemical weapon stockpile of diverse blister and nerve agents, research now focuses on several microbial processes that are environment-friendly and inexpensive in preference to costly conventional chemical processes in inactivating dangerous chemical agents, and degrading a further their residues.

Chemical weapons are intended to kill, seriously injure or incapacitate living systems. Choking agents such as phosgene cause death; blood agents such as cyanide-based compounds are more lethal than choking agents; and nerve agents such as sarin and tabun are still more lethal than blood agents.

The use of bioweapons is dependent upon several stages. These involve research, development and demonstration programs, large-scale production of the invasive agent, devising and testing of efficiency of appropriate delivery systems, and maintenance of lethal and pathogenic properties during delivery, storage and stockpiling. Projectile weapons in the form of a minuscule pellet containing ricin, a plant-derived toxin are ingenuously delivered through the spike of an umbrella. Well known examples of the use of such a delivery system are the targeted deaths of foreign nationals that occurred in London and Paris in the autumn of 1978.

Fundamental research and field tests continue to focus on the minimum infective dose of the biological agent to decimate targeted populations, the time period involved to cause disease either instantaneously or over a long period of time, and the exploitation of the entry mechanisms such as inhalation, ingestion, use of vectors, and contamination of natural water supplies and food stocks.

Small-pox virus has long been used as a lethal weapon in biological warfare. The decimation of the American Indian population in 1763 is attributed to the wide distribution by the invading powers of blankets of small-pox patients as gifts. More recently, WHO after a 23-year campaign declared the eradication of small-pox worldwide in 1980. A landmark date of June 1999, had been set in 1996, for the destruction of the remaining stocks of small-pox virus that were being maintained at the WHO collaborating centers: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, and the Russian State Center for Research and Biotechnology, Koltsovo, Novosibirsk, Russian Federation. Current issues, however, such as the emergence of immunosuppressed populations resulting from xenotransplantation and cancer chemotherapy, loss of biodiversity, and the reemergence of old diseases have necessitated a re-evaluation of the decision to destroy "a key protective resource." WHO now calls for the obtention of sequence information on additional virus strains and the conduct of research on novel diagnostic tests and antiviral drugs in appropriate animal models by the end of 2002.

The institution of food insecurity is a subtle form of economic and surrogate biological warfare. Conflicts over shared water resources in some regions of the world are commonplace. Human health, food security and the management of the environment are continuously being threatened, regionally and globally, by dwindling reserves of water. Within the framework of a real world perspective of biotechnology and food security for the 21st century, soil erosion, salinization, overcultivation, and waterlogging are other constituents. Deliberately contaminated food containing herbicide, pesticide or heavy metal residues, and use of land for crops for production of luxurious ornamental plants and cut flowers, is another constituent of food insecurity. Again, new and emerging plant diseases affect food security and agricultural sustainability, which in turn aggravate malnutrition and render human beings more susceptible to re-emerging human diseases. The deliberate release of harmful and pathogenic organisms, that kill cash crops and destroy the reserves of an enemy, constitutes an awesome weapon of biological warfare and bioterrorism.

Anticrop warfare, involving biological agents and herbicides, results in debilitating famines, severe malnutrition, decimation of agriculture-based economies, and food insecurity. Several instances using late blight of potatoes, anthrax, yellow and black wheat rusts and insect infestations with the Colorado beetle, the rapeseed beetle, and the corn beetle in World Wars I and II have been documented. Defoliants in the Vietnam war have been widely used as agents of anticrop warfare. Cash crops that have been targeted in anticrop warfare are sweet potatoes, soybeans, sugar beets, cotton, wheat, and rice. The agents used to cause economic losses with the latter two foreign-exchange earnings were Puccinia graminis tritici and Piricularia oryzae respectively. Wheat smut, caused by the fungus Tilettia caries or T. foetida has been used as a biowarfare weapon. The use of such warfare focuses on the destruction of national economies benefiting from export earnings of wheat—an important cereal cash crop in the Gulf region. In addition, the personal health and safety of the harvesters is also endangered by the flammable trimethylamine gas produced by the pathogen. Species of the fungus Fusarium have been used as a source of the mycotoxin warfare in Southeast and Central Asia.

Foodborne pathogens are estimated to be responsible for some 6.5 to 33 million cases on human illnesses and up to 9000 deaths in the USA per annum. The costs of human illnesses attributed to foodborne causes are between US$2.9 and 6.7 billion, and are attributed to six bacterial pathogens-Salmonella typhosa, Campylobacter jejuni, Escherichia coli 0157H:H7, Listeria monocytogenes, Staphylococcus aureus and Clostridium perfringens found in animal products. Consequently, there is the dangerous risk that such organisms could be used in biological warfare and bioterrorism given that Salmonella, Campylobacter and Listeria have been encountered in outbreaks of foodborne infections, and that cases of food poisoning have been caused by Clostridium, Escherichia and Staphylococcus.

Bacterial and fungal diseases are significant factors in economic losses of vegetable and fruit exports. Viral diseases, transmitted by the white fly Bemisia tabaci are responsible for severe economic losses resulting from damage to melons, potatoes, tomatoes, and eggplants.

The pest, first encountered in the mid-1970s in the English-speaking Caribbean region has contributed to estimated losses of US $50 million p.a in the Dominican Republic. Economic losses resulting from infestation of over 125 plant species, inclusive of food crops, fruits, vegetables and ornamental plants have been severe in St. Lucia, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Windward Islands. In Grenada, crop losses in the mid-1990s were estimated at UD$50 million following an attack by Maconnellicoccus hirsutus, the Hibsicus Mealy Bug. "The existence of natural occurring or endemic agricultural pests or diseases and outbreaks permits an adversary to use biological warfare with plausible denial" and several imaginative possibilities exist.

The interaction of biological warfare, genetic engineering and biodiversity (see, Biotechnology and Agrobiodiversity) is of crucial significance to the industrialized and non-industrialized societies. Developing countries that possess a rich biodiversity of cash crops have a better chance of weathering anticrop warfare. On the other hand, the food security of the industrialized societies, especially in the northern hemisphere, is imperiled by their reliance on one or two varieties of their major food crops. The use of genetic engineering, whilst enhancing crop yields and food security (see, Agricultural Biotechnology) could result in more effective anticrop weapons using gene-modified pathogens that are herbicide-resistant, and non-susceptible to antibiotics. Threats to human health exist with the biocontrol and bioremediation agent Burkholderia cepacia during agricultural and aquacultural use. Attention has also been drawn to the new and potential threats arising from the uncontrolled release of genetically modified organisms (see, Why Genetic Modification Arouses Concerns: Social, Cultural and Political Impacts; Biotechnology in the Environment: Potentials Effects on Biodiversity).

Another aspect of biological warfare involves the corruption of the youth of tomorrow—the bastion of a nation’s human resources—with cocaine, heroin, and marijuana derived from drug and narcotic plantations reared by conventional and/or genetically engineered agriculture. On the other hand, the eradication of such drugs plant crops through infection with plant pathogens could prove counterproductive in yielding more knowledge and skills to wipe out food crops, and animal-based agriculture.



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