There is nothing you can do to protect yourself. You have either been chosen strategically or infected unintentionally through other humans, the food chain or the air” emphasizes Lieutenant Colonel E. Richter, one of Austria’s leading experts regarding nuclear, biological and chemical (NBC) warfare, during an interview. LtCol Richter looks back to more than 30 years of experience in the field of NBC weapons, working with the Austrian army as well as in Iraq as a bioweapons inspector. Biological agents are living organisms such as bacteria and fungi or toxins, which can cause infectious diseases or intoxication among people, animals and plants. In the last resort, biological agents have the force to extinguish whole populations, as almost happened in the 14th century. During this time, the plague killed more than 25 million Europeans.
“Biological agents are far more lethal than even the most toxic chemical agents,” concluded the Economist in 2012. While chemical agents such as nerve gas or sarin are considered to be equally dangerous, they do not necessarily kill the targeted person but limits the person’s capability to move. Subsequently, according to Stefan Riedel, professor of microbiology at Johns Hopkins University, while both agents “disrupt social and economic activity, cause the breakdown of government authority and impairs the military responses” due to panic and social unrest, biological agents lead to severe morbidity and mortality.
The use of biological agents as a weapon is not new, despite today’s scientific developments and technological progress. The use of filth, cadavers, contagion and pollution of enemy water sources dates back to 600 BC. These naturally occurring agents were, for example, used by British colonists in the 18th century when they distributed blankets ‘soaked’ with smallpox among the Native Americans and caused severe diseases and death. Smallpox continued to threaten the world population until the 1980s when a so called, ‘ring vaccination’ technique officially eradicated the disease.
Shockingly though, the smallpox virus was not destroyed within laboratories. It still exists in government laboratories in the USA and Russia, where the agents are genetically modified. Today, stockpiles of biological agents are predicted to be found in veterinary labs, public health institutes and pharmaceutical industries around the world. The latter have an increased interest in biological research in order to develop and sell vaccines and medication for prevention in case of a bioterrorism attack. The question raised by LtCol Richter is thus, “which [research] is legitimate and which is done for military purposes?”
The reasons for stockpiling viruses could be either for defensive reaction but also for offensive attacks. Pharmaceutical industries and other official laboratories complicate definite statements as well as surveillance and transparency. In the 1990s and 2000s, the Bush administration found unexpected stockpiles of biological agents made in Iraqi laboratories and institutes. Furthermore, the Soviet Union conducted research on smallpox and its weaponization in remote facilities in Siberia during the Cold War where transparency and oversight was impossible on an international level. Yet, the USA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also have stockpiles of biological agents and vaccines and justify their research as a preparation for an epidemic outbreak or a national threat.
Notwithstanding, biological warfare is of economic interest for the pharmaceutical industries, and it can furthermore, be used as an “instrument of power” according to LtCol Richter. Independent journalists and the Jerusalem-based online newspaper the Times of Israel wrote that Syria has the capacities to develop biological weapons of mass destruction. Research is as far as to load living organisms such as smallpox into warheads and to extinguish a specific population. However, LtCol Richter assures calmly that living organisms are rather “inefficient for military intentions.” This is the case because a large amount of the virus is needed in order to assure that the agent actually enters the body. While chemical agents take affect quickly, infections have, though highly infective, a long incubation period, wherefore the time of effectiveness is incalculable.
Alternatively, biological warfare shows to be efficient for strategic attacks. In 2001, for example, five people died after an attack with the infectious diseases anthrax which was found in letters addressed to several senators and news agencies in the USA. By doing so, the aggressor is able to aim for a specific target and to execute power by provoking fear, panic, uncertainty and confusion among the world population. The public, on the other hand, has no other choice than to trust the public health authorities who have to diagnose and report any signs of a possible epidemic outbreak or a symptom of poisoning. “It is not in the responsibility of the media, but of the public health authorities, who have to collaborate constantly with several actors” emphasizes LtCol Richter.
There are several options to assure health and a feeling of security. These include intensive preparation and training for potential biological and chemical warfare, national and global disease surveillance systems and the exchange of effective response and treatment plans. Furthermore, political incentives are needed in order to control biological research and the weaponization of infectious diseases. First steps were taken when the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the 1972 Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on the Destruction (BWC), which prohibit the use of biological weapons and require transparent biological defense research, were signed. Nevertheless, they were inefficient and disregarded by several states such as Iraq, North Korea, Russia and Sudan during the Cold War and beyond. Yet, chemical weapons, aside from a few exceptions, are more or less controlled or destroyed. Biological weapons lack this attention and stay invisible – hidden from governments and the public.
To conclude, the use of biological agents as weapons of mass destruction is possible. Due to the knowledge gained in biotechnology, not only can biological agents be genetically-modified which simplifies the development and creation of a biological warfare, but also allows for the development of faster and more efficient emergency responses and surveillance systems. Either way, LtCol Richter recognizes a rise in the importance of bioterrorism, which “demonstrates a threat to public health and security.”