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The Growing Planetary Threat From Biological Weapons and Terrorism
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If you were James Bond and were ordered to kill half the population of a city of two million, without notice and without the resources of a major power at your command, what would you do? Another Hiroshima? No. You would take just a gram or two of a toxin called botulin and put it in the city's water supply.

The amount of botulin required to kill 50 percent of a group [LD50] is 0.6 nanograms per kg of a person's weight (1 nanogram is 1 billionth of a gram). And there will be no damage to property! Further, as botulin is a protein and all proteins decay sooner or later, the water contaminated with it will become potable in a while. Small wonder, botulin is one of the most powerful biological weapons. Such weapons have the following advantages.

[Editor's Note: Botulinum toxin is a neurotoxic protein produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. And though it's highly toxic, it is used in minute doses to treat muscle spasms and as a cosmetic treatment (Botox).]

They are easy and inexpensive to manufacture, weaponize and deliver. They have a long shelf life and are virtually impossible to detect and, therefore, verify; in just a few small refrigerators or freezers, one can store sufficient biological weapons to kill the entire population of the world many times over - and this is what Saddam Hussein probably did.

One has a wide range of choices, from agents that lead to virtually 100 percent mortality to agents that lead to little mortality but high morbidity [levels of infection]; or from agents that would have an immediate effect, to agents that would have a delayed effect (silent warfare!) One can also develop ethnic-specific weapons. For example, those that will kill or hurt Americans but not Indians.

Biological weapons can be either live bacteria, fungi (especially for targeting plants) and viruses or toxins. But fungi has the potential of multiplying after the organism is released and thus causing far more extensive damage over longer periods of time than fungi.

Today's repertoire of live biological weapons includes (where not obvious, parenthesis give the disease caused by the bacterium, virus or rickettsia): Chlamydia peittaci (Influenza psittacosis); Yellow fever virus; Dengue fever virus; Chikungunya virus; O'nyong-nyong virus; Mayaro virus; Ross River virus; Venezuelan equine encephalitis virus; Western equine encephalitis virus; Tick-borne encephalitis virus; Kyasanur Forest Disease virus; Rift Valley fever virus; Junin and other similar viruses (Argentinan haemorrhagic fever); Hantaan virus (Korean haemorrhagic fever); Lassa fever virus; Sindbis virus; Marburg virus; Congo Crimean virus (African haemorrhagic fever); Ebola virus; Variola virus (small pox); Vibrio cholarae (cholera); Salmonella typhose (typhoid); Shigella (dysentry); Francisella tularensis (tularemia); Brucella species; Clostridium tetani (tetanus); Clostridium perfringens (gangrene); Pasteurella pestis (plague); Bacillus anthracis (anthrax); Antinobacillus mallei (glanders); Rickettsia prowazakii (epidemic typhus); Rickettsia tsutsugamushi (scrub typhus); Coxiella burnetii (G-fever); Rickettsia rickettsii (Rocky Mountain spotted fever).

One need be infected with only 25 tularemia-causing microorganisms to run the risk of death. The toxins produced or studied as potential biological warfare agents are: Botulin (Clostridium botulinum toxin A); Enterotoxin B from Staphylococcus aureus; Saxitoxin (shellfish poison); Cobrotoxin; Crotoxin (from South American rattle snake); Myotoxin; Cardiotoxin; Bungarotoxin; Aflatoxin; Snail conotoxin; Scorpion toxins; Ricin (derived from castor beans); Substance P; Tetanus toxin; Trichothecene mycotoxins; Shiga toxin (from Shigella dysenteriae or S flexneri); Epsilon toxin from Clostridium perfringens).

And then there are fungi like Puccinia graminis (black-stem rust of cereals) and Pyricularia oryzae (rice blast) which can destroy entire fields of agriculture when sprayed in very small amounts. Before the collapse of their empire in 606 BC, the Assyrians used an ingenious method of poisoning the enemy. Rye, widely used at that time, is liable to attack by a poisonous fungus, Claviceps purpurea, which grows in place of the grain and forms a horny mass called ergot. Eating rye bread contaminated with ergot can cause gangrene, abortion and hallucinations. The Assyrians used this rye-ergot to poison their enemies.

[Although the Assyrians knew of ergot, a fungus of rye with effects similar to LSD, there is no evidence that they poisoned enemy wells with ergot, as has often been claimed ].

The ancient Romans threw carrion into wells to poison the drinking water of their adversaries.

In 1347, the Tartars catapulted the bodies of bubonic-plague victims over the city walls of Kaffa, a Black Sea port that served as a gateway to the silk-trade route - a maneuver that worked.

[Editor's Note: The popular theory places the first cases of bubonic-plague in the steppes of Central Asia ... from Central Asia it was carried east and west along the Silk Road by Mongol armies and traders during the Pax Mongolica. It was reportedly first introduced to Europe at the trading city of Kaffa in the Crimea in 1347. After a protracted siege, during which the Mongol army was suffering the disease, they catapulted infected corpses over the city walls to spread the disease to the inhabitants .

The total number of deaths worldwide is estimated to have been 75 million people, approximately 25--50 million of which occurred in Europe. The Black Death is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of Europe's population.]

In 1942, the Soviets infected German occupation troops with the Tularemia-causing agent, which eventually led to more than 100,000 cases of the disease on both sides. Between 1936 and 1945, Japanese Military Unit-731 experimented with biological weapons on Chinese at PingFan in Manchuria, killing 3,559 prisoners of war with agents like anthrax, cholera, plague and dysentery . On several occasions, the Japanese also released plague on the Chinese civilian population of Hunan Province by releasing from aircraft, fleas that had fed on infected rats. In fact between 1940 and 1950, China was plagued by disease from Japan's biological weapons (typhus, bubonic plague, cholera and anthrax).

In 1978, Soviet intelligence agents used ricin to murder Georgi Markov , a defector from Bulgaria. In 1979, an accidental release of anthrax from the Soviet bioweapons facility in Sverdlovsk killed some 100 people and much livestock . In 1984, Salmonella was released by the cult followers of Bhagwan Rajneesh in salad bars in four restaurants in The Dalles in Oregon, U.S. , which made 750 people ill; the objective was apparently to influence a local election by keeping voters from the polls! And between 1990 and 1995, the Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo, made several unsuccessful attempts to use biological weapons including botulin .

In 1763, U.S. Whites used blankets and handkerchiefs infected with small pox virus against the Red Indians [Pontiac's Rebellion ]; this led to the deaths of 6 million of America's native Indians.

In 1955, U.S. scientists sprayed Q-fever bacteria in a slurry [a watery mixture of insoluble matter] over Utah on human test subjects; not only were they infected, but so were soldiers manning the road blocks! During the Bay of Pigs conflict, the U.S. used the pig plague-causing organism in Cuba. And the Anthrax attack in the U.S. just after 9/11 was almost a contained act of biological warfare.

Advances in modern biology have opened up avenues for making designer biological weapons which would, say, exploit genetic or ethnic differences. For example, in the U.S., those who are above 50 have a comparatively weaker immune response [then Indians]. They would thus be far more susceptible to small doses of certain toxic antigens (living organisms or chemicals) which would have no effect on the adult Indian population. Proper release of these antigens in the environment could cause at least temporary disability amongst Americans over 50, while not affecting Indians. Indeed, when it comes to developing and using biological weapons, it is essentially a battle of wits - something in which, perhaps, the deprived part of the world has an advantage, since in any case, they've been living by their wits all along!

The Soviets have developed genetically modified Legionella bacteria that have been shown to induce auto-immunity to myelin (an important component of nerve and brain) in mice; when infected with this bacterium the mice die a horrific death.

In 2002, a group of Australian genetic engineers accidentally created a mouse virus that kills every one of its victims by wrecking its immune response - something like what HIV does. There would be, as of today, no defense against such a human virus.


And the question whether Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome [SARS ] was being developed by China as a biological warfare agent and happened to leak out of the lab has never been satisfactorily answered.

Despite being signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention, at least the U.K., the U.S., Russia, Canada, Germany, South Africa, Japan, Iraq, Iran, Syria and North Korea have had extensive biological weapons development and testing programs - in some cases for at least 80 years.

When, during the Iraq-Kuwait conflict from January 16 to February 20, 1991, Saddam Hussein said that he had the final weapon, several of us predicted that he had biological weapons like botulin or anthrax spores that could be put on a Scud missile warhead, even though Iraq had initially denied that it had a biological warfare program.

On May 31, 1991, the distinguished American scientist, Mathew Meselson, and this writer were invited to address ambassadors in Geneva at Chateau de Bossey on Lake Geneva, under the auspices of a residential conference on biological weapons. During a lecture that evening, this writer mentioned Saddam Hussein having biological weapons. Immediately after the meeting, organizers introduced me to two German gentlemen who had set up biological weapons factories in Iraq! These were the factories unearthed later by the CIA.

Subsequently, Iraq declared it had 157 aerial bombs and 25 warheads with botulin, anthrax spores and aflatoxin, the first two of which are the most fatal biological weapons known. An area of 18 sq km that was fenced in and maintained by Iraq was devoted to making single cell protein and housed facilities for making biological weapons. In 1995 it was discovered that during the 1980s, Iraq had imported 40 tons of bacterial growth media the only purpose of which could be for making biological weapons.


According to the U.S. Defense Department, there are large stockpiles of Anthrax in Syria, Iran, Libya, China, South and North Korea, Taiwan and Israel. Strangely, it excludes itself and the U.K. where the stockpiles perhaps are the largest. In 1944, the U.S. provided funds to produce 275,000 botulin bombs and one million anthrax bombs.

In 2003, the U.S. Government gave $1.5 billion as an additional grant to an institution (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, or NIAID) to work on selected biological warfare agents: to develop an enzyme to lyse anthrax bacilli; and to further work on a vaccine that seems to have been developed by a NIAID scientist against Ebola (the vaccine was being tried on monkeys in 2003). Over the past seven years, the U.S. has spent over $57 billion to shore up American Bioterror Defenses, stockpiling drugs against biological weapons, networking detection systems in more than 10 cities and preparedness at hospitals.

After World War II, in exchange for 8,000 pages of Japanese data, the U.S. gave immunity to Lieutenant-General Shiro Ishia, who began work on biological warfare in Japan in 1931. In 1950, the U.S. had large stockpiles of mosquitoes infected with Yellow Fever, Malaria, Dengue and Plague; and ticks infected with Tularemia .

When a few years ago, there was an epidemic of measles in the U.S., officials wondered if it was an act of biological warfare. But the systems they have are so effective that they traced it to a Romanian girl who unknowingly brought the infection into the country. Unfortunately, we don't have such a system and thus can't be sure that the Surat plague or the various other episodes of Chikungunya weren't surreptitious acts of biological warfare.

Experts have identified pest strains in some imported food which aren't known to occur in India. In fact, despite it now being clear that such an attack is far more likely than a nuclear attack given the comparative cost of biological weapons, India is completely unprepared for a biological weapons attack. Biological weapons are the poor man's atom bomb.

What we need to do

  • Prepare an appropriate database with a mechanism to update it.
  • Work out mechanisms of dissemination of appropriate information to the public
  • Set up a first-rate laboratory that meets international standards for research into biological weapons and ways and means of detecting and combating them (in real time).
  • Set up a laboratory for testing samples in real time like the Center for Disease Control in the U.S.
  • Introduce a course on biological weapons in the medical curricula, in the training program for civil servants, and in the training module of police, defense and intelligence services.
  • Set up a high power level coordination council consisting of defense personnel, police, scientists, medical personnel and National Security Advisory Board to plan and execute the above.

By Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava

Dr. Pushpa M. Bhargava is former director of the Centre for Cellular Molecular Biology in Hyderabad.

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