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Biowarfare – today and in the past

Biowarfare – today and in the past

Publish date: 2015-08-17

Anthrax, plague or smallpox are genuinely “perfect” biological warfare – good transmission, lack of resistance of the population, high severity and fatality makes people be afraid of possible bioterrorist attack with such agent. But is it really kind of modern warfare, or known for ages?

Tags: bioterrorism , biowarfare

One may think that biowarfare is something rather modern  – yet before XVII century nobody had known about the existence of bacteria. Nevertheless, since the ancient times this kind of warfare we were ‘blessed’ with by the nature, was used.

Poisoning the arrows with botulinum toxin, setting up traps with venomous snakes, poisoning wells, leaving behind corpses of soldiers died of  infectious diseases – all these actions fulfill the conditions of definition of biological weapon, which consist of living microorganisms (or replicating entities – viruses), the toxins of microbial and plant origin as well as their vectors (e.g. insects). This method of warfare was used long before the exact mechanisms of its action were discovered.

The first documented cases of biowarfare in a little bit “modern” times dates back to XIV century, when during the siege of  Kaffa the corpses of people dead from plague were catapulted into the citadel. It happened again many times in the history – for example during the war between Russia and Sweden in the  XVIII century. Similar technique was used by the British during the conquest of North America – Indians, due to lack of resistance to virus causing smallpox, were easy target to such biowarfare, therefore it was willingly used by the British, for example during the Pontiac’s Uprising.

Modern times are not free of biowarfare attempts – during First World War there were many attacks on farmlands with fungi or on people or feedstock with anthrax or glanders bacteria. During interwar times, as well as during Second World War, many investigations on application of deadly microorganisms in combat conditions were conducted, what resulted in the creation of  effective biological warfare based on anthrax, tularemia, typhoid fever or botulin toxin. As long as there is no evidence that biowarfare was used anywhere in Europe, it was willingly used by Japan on human during the war with China or in Unit 731 in scope of lethal human experimentation.

After the Second World War the investigation on biological warfare continued. The work on  the optimalization and ways of transmission of deadly pathogens was carried out until the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972, during which the signatory countries undertook to cease acquisition, development and transfer of biological weapon. Despite that the work was still conducted, as evidenced by e.g. Sverdlovsk anthrax leak where, due to release of  spores of anthrax bacilli, several dozen to several hundred people died, or confession by Iraq, after Persian Gulf War, of possessing more than 19000 liters of botulinum toxin that could wipe out whole human population three times.

Apart from (un)official military programs associated with biological warfare production there were also attempts of bioterrorist attacks with deadly pathogens or their metabolites. In the mid- 90s Japanese sect tried to spray botulin toxin in Tokyo’s underground and in 2001, week after attack on World Trade Center, the letters containing anthrax’s spores were send to some media’s officials and senators.

Nowadays, the biggest concerns about biological weapons are connected with terrorist attack conducted by ISIS or the release of deadly, resistant to any treatment pathogen. The all what is left is hope that this is never going to happen.  

Rafal Madaj

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