The use of biological weapons, or bioweapons, dates back to the ancient world. As early as 1500 B.C. the Hittites of Asia Minor recognized the power of contagions and sent plague victims into enemy lands. Armies, too, have long understood the power of bioweapons, catapulting diseased corpses into besieged fortresses and poisoning enemy wells.
Since those early days, advances in medical science have led to a vastly improved understanding of harmful pathogens and the way our immune systems deal with them. But while these advancements have led to vaccinations and cures, they have also led to the further weaponization of some of the most destructive biological agents on the planet.
The first half of the 20th century saw the use of the biological weapon anthrax by both the Germans and Japanese, as well as the subsequent development of biological weapons programs in nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. Today, biological weapons are outlawed under 1972′s Biological Weapons Convention and the Geneva Protocol. But while a number of nations have long destroyed their stockpiles of bioweapons and ceased research into their proliferation, the threat remains.
Here are the top ranked bio-weapons threats based on how dangerous they are and the damage that they could yield:
The term “biological weapon” typically summons mental images of sterile government labs, hazmat suits and test tubes full of brightly colored liquid apocalypse. Historically, however, biological weapons have often taken much more mundane forms: a wandering exile, paper bags full of plague-infested fleas or even, during the1763 French and Indian War, a simple blanket.
Smallpox is caused by the variola virus, a DNA virus whose genetic code has been sequenced. It is a prime candidate for genetic engineering. Highly infective, the most common form of the disease has a 35 % mortality rate. Signs of smallpox include high fevers, body aches, and a rash that develops from fluid-filled bumps and scabs to permanent, pitted scars. The disease predominantly spreads through direct contact with an infected person’s skin or bodily fluids, but also can be spread though the air in close, confined environments. In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) spearheaded an effort to eradicate smallpox through mass vaccinations. As a result, 1977 marked the last naturally occurring case of smallpox. The disease was effectively eliminated from the natural world, but laboratory copies of smallpox still exist.
The CDC (Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention) classifies smallpox as a Category A biological weapon due to its high mortality rate and the fact that it can be transmitted through the air. While a smallpox vaccine exists, typically only medical and military personnel undergo vaccination — meaning the rest of the population is very much at risk if smallpox were unleashed as a weapon. How might the virus be released? Probably by air or even in the old-fashioned way: by sending an infected individual directly into the target area.
During the fall of 2001, letters containing a curious white powder began turning up at U.S. Senate offices and media outlets. When word spread that the envelopes contained the spores of the deadly bacteria Bacillus anthracis, panic ensued. The anthrax letter attacks infected 22 people and killed five. Seven years later, the FBI finally narrowed down its investigation to government anthrax scientist Bruce Ivans, who committed suicide before the case could be closed.
Due to its high mortality rate and environmental stability, the anthrax bacteria is also classified as a Category A biological weapon. The bacteria live in the soil, where grazing animals typically come into contact with spores while rooting around for food. People, however, may become infected with anthrax by touching the spores, inhaling them or ingesting them.
Most cases of anthrax are cutaneous, transmitted through skin contact with the spores. The most deadly form is inhalation anthrax, when the spores travel to the lungs and then the immune cells carry them to the lymph nodes. Here, the spores multiply and release toxins that result in such symptoms as fever, respiratory problems, fatigue, muscle aches, enlarged lymph nodes, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and black ulcers. Inhalation anthrax carries the highest mortality rate of the three (100 percent, 75 percent with medical treatment), and unfortunately, that was the form contracted by all five casualties from the 2001 anthrax letters.
In the book “A conversation with Richard Preston” in Laboratory Medicine (vol. 30, pg 517, Aug. 1999), it is mentioned that “Doctors who have treated anthrax patients have found that they’ll be asking a patient how he feels, and the patient dies in mid-sentence.”
The disease isn’t easy to catch under normal situations, and it can’t be transmitted from person to person. Still, health workers, veterinarians and military personnel normally undergo vaccinations. The rest of us, however, remain at risk if someone were bent on another anthrax attack.
These attributes helped to establish anthrax as a favorite among bioweapons programs throughout the world. Japanese scientists conducted human experiments with aerosolized anthrax in the late 1930s in their infamous Unit 731 biological warfare facility in occupied Manchuria. British forces experimented with anthrax bombs in1942, managing to so thoroughly contaminate test site Gruinard Island that, 44 years later, 280 tons of formaldehyde were required to decontaminate it. In 1979, the Soviet Union accidently released airborne anthrax, killing 66 people in the process.
Today, B. anthracis remains one of the most well-known and feared bioweapons. Numerous biological warfare programs have worked to produce anthrax over the years and while a vaccine exists, mass vaccination would only become viable if mass exposure occurred.
Another well-documented killer exists in the form of the Ebola virus, one of more than a dozen different viral hemorrhagic fevers, nasty illnesses sometimes marked by copious bleeding. Ebola began to make headlines in the late 1970s as it spread through Zaire and Sudan, killing thousands. In the decades that followed, the virus maintained its lethal reputation in outbreaks across Africa and proved a volatile organism even in controlled settings.
Named for the region of the Congo in which it was first discovered, scientists suspect the Ebola virus normally resides within a native, African animal host, but the exact origin and natural habitat of the disease remain a mystery. As such, we have only encountered the virus after it has successfully infected humans or nonhuman primates.
Once present in a host, the virus infects others through direct contact with blood or other body secretions. In Africa, the virus has proved itself particularly adept at spreading through hospitals and clinics. An infected individual can expect to start experiencing symptoms in between 2 and 21 days. Typical symptoms may include headache, muscle ache, sore throat and weakness, followed by diarrhea and vomiting. Some patients also suffer internal and external bleeding. Between 60 and 90% of infections end in death after 7 to 16 days.
Doctors don’t know why some patients are better able to recover than others. Nor do they how to treat it. And, as noted earlier, there’s no Ebola vaccine. In fact, we only process a vaccine for one form of hemorrhagic fever: yellow fever.
While many medical professionals labored to better treat and prevent outbreaks of Ebola, a team of Soviet scientists set out to turn the virus into a weapon. They initially encountered difficulties cultivating Ebola in the laboratory, enjoying more success with the development of Marburg hemorrhagic fever.
The Black Death, as it is called, decimated half the population of Europe in the 14th century — a horror that continues to resonate through the world even today. Dubbed “the great dying,” the mere prospect of a return to such times is enough to put a population on edge. Today, some researchers speculate that the world’s first pandemic may have actually been a hemorrhagic fever, but the term “plague” continues to cling to another long-standing suspect and current Category A biological weapon: the Yersinia pestis bacterium.
Plague exists in two main strains: bubonic and pneumonic. Bubonic plague typically spreads by bites from infected fleas, but also can be transmitted from person to person through contact with infected bodily fluids. This strain is named for the swollen glands, or buboes, around the groin, armpit and neck. This swelling is accompanied by fever, chills, headache and exhaustion. Symptoms occur within two or three days and typically last between one and six days. Unless treated within the first 24 hours of infection, 70 percent of those infected die. Pneumonic plague is less common and spreads through the air by coughs, sneezes and face-to-face contact. Its symptoms include high fever, cough, bloody mucus and difficulty breathing.
Several countries have explored the use of plague as a bioweapon and, as the disease still occurs naturally throughout the world, copies of the bacterium are relatively easy to come by. With appropriate treatment, plague’s mortality rate can dip as low as 5%. There is no vaccine.
A harsh bioweapon doesn’t have to boast a high mortality rate to be successful, though. While tularemia only claims an overall 5% mortality rate, the microorganism that causes it is one of the most infectious bacteria on Earth. Francisella tularensis occurs naturally in no more than 50 organisms and is especially prevalent in rodents, rabbits and hares. Humans typically acquire the disease through contact with infected animals, infected insect bites, the consumption of contaminated foods or the inhalation of the bacteria in aerosol form.
Symptoms typically appear within 3 to 5 days and vary depending on the method of infection. Patients may experience fever, chills, headache, diarrhea, muscle aches, joint pain, dry cough and progressive weakness. Pneumonialike symptoms can also develop. If untreated, respiratory failure, shock and death can follow. The illness typically lasts less than two weeks, but during that time, the infected people are basically bedridden.
Tularemia doesn’t transfer between human hosts and can be easily treated with antibiotics or prevented with a vaccine. It does, however, spread very rapidly between animal hosts and humans or when used in aerosol form. It is this factor, not its mortality rate, that earned F. tularensis a Category A biological weapon ranking. It is especially virile in aerosol form. Due to these factors, the United States, Britain, Canada and the Soviet Union all worked to create weaponized tularemia after the close of World War II.
Ricin is a protein toxin extracted from the castor bean plant. Ricin kills by destroying an important component of the protein synthesizing machinery of cells, the ribosome. It works as a slow poison, eventually causing a total body collapse as necessary proteins are not replaced. The structure and mechanism of action of ricin is well understood, thus making it an excellent candidate for genetic manipulation. That is, because of this knowledge, it should be possible to genetically modify ricin so as to make it a more effective biological weapon. Ricin is already being investigated for its “magic bullet” properties as an agent that might selectively destroy cancer cells. This same technology could easily be applied to improving its bioweapon-capacity. For example, if ricin is chemically bound to antibodies that only bind to a certain type of cancer cell, the attached ricin should only kill the targeted cancer cells and no other cells. The same principle could be used to specifically target an enemy. In theory, one could be specific enough to use this procedure to target a single individual for assassination.
The delivery issues of ricin are probably similar to those for botox and are clouded in the same cloak of secrecy. It is reasonable to assume that relatively effective dispersal methods are available for delivering this toxin to a population and further, that since the components of ricin are being genetically manipulated for a variety reasons, that one of these uses might involve Black Biology.
In theory it is possible to immunize against the ricin protein, but I know of no source of an appropriate vaccine, although it should not be difficult to produce one; the problem is preparing it in quantity ahead of time (like the flu vaccine every year) and inoculating the target population far enough in advance. No effective treatment exists once the ricin has produced clinical symptoms (similar to the botulism toxin story below).
4. Botulinum Toxin
Take a deep breath. If the air you just inhaled contained botulinum toxin, you’d have no way of knowing. In weaponized airborne form, the deadly bacteria would be completely colorless and odorless. Between 12 and 36 hours later, however, the first signs of botulism would begin to take hold: blurred vision, vomiting and difficulty swallowing. At this point, your only hope would be a botulism antitoxin — and only if you could get your hands on it before symptoms advanced much further. If untreated, paralysis begins to take hold, seizing up your muscles and finally your respiratory system.
Often touted as the most toxic substance in the world or at least in the biological world, botox is an obvious front runner. C. botulinum can be isolated from its natural habitat, the soil and it has been obtained from culture supply houses. It is an obligate anaerobe, which makes it a bit difficult to grow, but this presents no serious obstacle to a competent microbiologist. It grows rapidly on common bacterial media and the conditions for achieving optimum toxin production are well researched. Purification of the botox protein is not difficult. One suspects that by using new affinity column chromatography, gram quantities could be isolated in a day or less, or even on a continuous-flow basis.
Without respiratory support, Clostridium botulinum can kill in 24 to 72 hours. For this reason, the organism’s deadly toxin rounds out the list of six Category A biological weapons. With ventilators to work your lungs, the mortality rate plummets from 70% to 6%, but recovery takes time. This is because the toxin binds to the point where nerve endings and muscles meet, effectively cutting off the signal from the brain. To recover fully from a case of botulism, the patient actually has to grow new nerve endings — a process that takes several months. And while a vaccine exists, concerns over effectiveness and side effects have plagued its development, so it’s not widely used.
As if the symptoms weren’t scary enough, C. botulinum occurs all over the world, especially in soil and marine sediments. The spores often pop up on fruits, vegetables and seafood. In this state, they’re harmless. It’s only as they begin to grow that they produce their deadly toxin. Humans primarily encounter the toxin through the consumption of tainted foods, as the temperatures and chemicals in improperly stored foods often provide the perfect conditions for the spores to grow and develop.
3. Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B
Staphylococcal enterotoxin B (SEB) is an enterotoxin produced by the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus. It is a common cause of food poisoning, with severe diarrhea, nausea and intestinal cramping often starting within a few hours of ingestion. Being very stable, the toxin remains active even after the contaminating bacteria are killed. It can withstand boiling at 100°C for a few minutes. Gastroenteritis occurs because SEB is a superantigen, causing the immune system to release a large amount of cytokines that lead to significant inflammation.
The use of SEB as a weapon of mass casualty is considered likely for several reasons, mainly high morbidity with ease of production and dispersion, the delayed onset of disease symptoms associated with high morbidity and low mortality and difficulty in diagnosis. Staphylococcal enterotoxin B is a superantigen capable of massive nonspecific activation of the immune system. Because of the remarkable toxicity and stability, they would most likely be disseminated as an aerosol, in food, or water supplies. Several vaccine trials in animal models appear to be promising but, in order to perform these trials in human subjects, it will be necessary to understand which receptors are used to attach and penetrate the epithelial barrier, the effects of SEB on mucosal cells and role of mucosal immunity. Briefly, SEB is an incapacitating biowarfare toxin.
The US Army Chemical Warfare Service may have supplied a vial of SEB to OSS agents during the Second World War to incapacitate a Nazi agent in North Africa at the time of the D-day invasion to prevent effective handling of intelligence in the early hours of the invasion. The United States weaponized SEB originally as agent PG, later UC, during the Cold War. It was anticipated to have a rate-of-action of several hours and a duration-of-action of a few days. There was a crash program to deliver a usable weapon, and there was a plan to use it in the opening hours of an invasion of Cuba during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but the plan was later rejected.
2. Nipah Virus
Viruses adapt and evolve over time. New strains emerge and, occasionally, close contact between humans and animals allow life-threatening diseases to leap to the top of the food chain. As human populations continue to swell, the emergence of new diseases is inevitable. And every time a new outbreak makes the headlines, you can be sure someone is considering how to turn it into a weapon.
Nipah virus is just such a disease, having only risen to the attention of world health agencies in 1999. The outbreak occurred in the Nipah region of Malaysia, infecting 265 and killing 105. While 90% of those infected handled pigs for a living, health workers suspect the virus naturally occurs in fruit bats. The exact nature of transference is uncertain, but experts think that the virus may spread through close physical contact or contaminated body fluids.
The illness typically lasts 6 to 10 days, inducing symptoms that range from severe, flulike conditions, fever and muscle pains to encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain. In these more severe cases, patients experienced drowsiness, disorientation, convulsions and ultimately coma. The virus carries a mortality rate of 65%, and there currently are no standard treatments or vaccinations.
1. Chimera Virus
Plague, smallpox, anthrax – some of the world’s deadliest biological agents aren’t out to get you. Any harmful properties they possess are simply byproducts of their evolution. But what happens when scientists tinker with the genetic makeup of these organisms? What kind of horrors may come to life when we add the human desire to wage war to their natural design? Unfortunately, the creation of such life forms isn’t just a page from a science fiction novel — it’s already happening.
In Greek and Roman mythology, the chimera combined elements of lion, goat and serpent into one monstrous form. Artists in the late medieval age often used the creature as a symbol to illustrate the complex nature of evil. In modern genetic science, a chimeric organism is a life form that contains genes from a foreign species. Given its namesake, you might expect all chimeric organisms to be awful examples of man twisting nature for nefarious ends. Fortunately, our increased understanding of genetic science has led to some beneficial creations. One such chimera, which combines the common cold with polio, may help cure brain cancer.
But as the war continues its forward momentum through human history, the abuse of such science is inevitable. Geneticists have already discovered the means to increase the lethality of such bioweapons as smallpox and anthrax by tweaking their genetic structure. By combining genes, however, scientists could theoretically create a virus that triggered two diseases at once. During the late 1980s, the Soviet Union’s Chimera Project studied the feasibility of combining smallpox and Ebola into one super virus.
Other potential nightmare scenarios involve strains of viruses that require certain triggers. A stealth virus would remain dormant for an extended period until triggered by predetermined stimuli. Other possible chimeric bioweapons might require two components to become effective. Imagine a strain of botulinum toxin that, when combined with the botulinum toxin antidote, only becomes more lethal. Such a biological attack would not only result in a higher mortality rate, but might erode public trust in health initiatives, aid workers and government response to the outbreak.
From splitting the atom to cracking life’s genomic riddles, the last century of scientific research has brought about tremendous potential for humans to build a better world – or destroy the one they have.