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Bio warfare: fact or fiction

March 24, 2020 | Expert Insights

Conspiracy Theories Abound

As you sit cloistered in your room, glued to your smartphone, a steady stream of conspiracy theories incessantly bombard you. The one getting maximum traction is the doomsday predictions of a bioweapon, let loose on an unprepared and unsuspecting human race, either through a lab accident or worse, maliciously. This article has no intention to defend or refute the various conspiracy theories currently being bandied around; it merely intends to highlight the potential of bioscience being subverted for destructive purposes.

Biological warfare also called germ warfare in some quarters, is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, insects, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war. Biological weapons (often termed "bio-weapons", "biological threat agents", or "bio-agents") are living organisms or replicating entities (viruses, which are not universally considered "alive"). 

Reaching back into History

An analysis of historical attempts at biological warfare clearly illustrates the difficulty in distinguishing between a naturally occurring epidemic and one triggered by a biowarfare attack. This dilemma existed in the past and continues today as amply highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

As early as 600 BC, infectious diseases were considered fair measures to inflict death and misery on the enemy and its population. Instances of the use of human faeces tipped arrows, cadavers thrown into water sources and handing out blankets infected by smallpox to the target population are well recorded. Tartar forces laying siege to Caffa, a Genoese seaport (now in Ukraine), in 1346 were struck by a plague epidemic.  The Tartars, never ones to say die, flung the plague infected cadavers inside the walls of Caffa . The ensuing plague forced the Genoese to open the gates to their city. It is further claimed that ships escaping to Constantinople, Genoa, Venice, and other Mediterranean seaports spread the plague further ashore.

The deadly smallpox strain has been effectively used as a bioweapon.  When the American West was being opened to settlers, it is alleged that in 1763 Native Americans were "gifted" smallpox infected blankets. Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commanding the British forces in North America was able to generate fomites when smallpox broke out in Fort Pitt. These fomites were then used to infect blankets which were ‘gifted’ by one Captain Ecuyer to Native American tribes in the Ohio River valley. The same tactic was adopted by Confederates forces in 1863 against the Union soldiers during the American Civil War.

19th Century advancements in microbiology enabled the isolation and production of stocks of specific pathogens.  In fact, in World War I there were allegations against Germany that it resorted to biological warfare by making an effort to spread cholera in Italy and plague in Russia. Germany denied these allegations vehemently, and in 1924 a subcommittee set up by the League of Nations absolved Germany finding no hard evidence of employment of bacteriological warfare.

In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was signed by 108 countries which “prohibited the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and bacteriological methods of warfare.”  However, the protocol was virtually toothless as it did not cater for verification or compliance. Many of the signatory countries continued with their research to develop biological weapons.

During World War II, both the axis powers Japan and Germany were accused of conducting intensive biological warfare research and human experiments. The notorious Japanese “Unit 731” was active in Manchuria. The Soviets tried Maj Gen Kawashima, the head of Unit 731 along with 12 of his subordinates in 1949 for preparing and using biological weapons.  After the war, there was an official Japanese apology calling these experiments as "most regrettable from the viewpoint of humanity.” The Nazis, on the other hand, were not accused of a biological offensive although there were many recorded instances of German scientists infecting concentration camp inmates with disease-producing organisms. 

The western allies were also not beyond suspicion.  Joseph Goebbels accused the British of deliberating spreading yellow fever from West Africa in India. The British were also known to be experimenting with B.anthracis, a viable biological warfare vector. The experiments were carried out in uninhabited islands off the coast of Scotland, and these islands remained contaminated till as late as 1986.

The U.S. War Reserve Service was formed in 1942 to supervise the American biowarfare programme at Camp Detrick, Maryland.  Today, it is known as the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) and is actively involved in the fight against COVID-19. 

After the end of World War II, many other countries were also reported to be pursuing active biological weapons research including Canada, Britain, France, the Soviet Union and later China. During the height of the cold war, both antagonists hurled accusations of usage of bioweapons.  The Soviet bloc spread the canard that British forces fighting in Oman in 1957 were using biological weapons while the Chinese blamed the USA for the cholera epidemic in Hong Kong in 1961.

A weapon of choice

Two characteristics make bioweapon an ideal choice for an aggressor- their invisibility and their delayed effect. The perpetrators can infect the target population, escape undetected and leave a panicked, fearful and hysterical population and an administration which is paralysed and overwhelmed by the sudden turn of events. The sickness and death in large numbers is not the goal, but the fear, panic and the uncertainty which are aimed at leading to a breakdown of state authority.  A good example is the so-called “anthrax letters" after the World Trade Centre attack in Sep 2001, which created a huge psychological impact despite infecting very few people. The fear of getting infected gripped everyone. 

Choices for bioweapons are; Anthrax because it can be released quietly; smallpox, frozen stocks of which are still maintained by the U.S. and Russia; tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, and botulism, which is caused by exposure to toxins made by C. botulinum — the most toxic substances known to humankind, which attack the body’s nerves and can lead to respiratory failure. 

Now, even coronavirus, having shown its deadly effectiveness, could find itself in the armoury of some nation or terrorist group.

The International Safeguards

The “Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction,” was signed by 103 countries in 1972. It prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of pathogens or toxins in “quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.” Unfortunately, this treaty too does not provide for inspections and coercive measures to prevent armament and adherence to the protocol.


  • Biowarfare attack is no longer in realms of fiction. This fact must be recognised and incorporated in every countries' self-defence protocols, just as we prepare and practice against earthquakes, tsunamis and air raids.  If such occurrences are to be faced with a calm and reasoned response in contrast to utter panic, both the medical community and the general public must be educated in epidemiology and control measures.

  • The state, on its part, must develop strategies against diseases which are prone to biological weapons proliferation. For the medical community, further education focusing on recognition of this threat is both timely and necessary.

  • The world should never again face a critical shortage of testing kits, ventilators, ICU beds and even such basic items like masks, gloves and sanitizers.  The COVID 19 pandemic has exposed us to the closest thing to a mass bio-attack, and it is crystal clear that we are far from ready to handle it.