Gram-for-gram, biological weapons are the deadliest weapons ever produced. Germs don’t respect borders, so biological threats—manmade and naturally occurring—can quickly have global impacts. Although only a few countries are suspected of having biological weapons, rapidly producing and weaponizing biological agents is surprisingly easy.
What's more, it's difficult to tell the difference between legitimate and harmful biological research. Advances in the life sciences hold extraordinary promise for new treatments and cures for disease, but the same knowledge—and equipment—can be used to engineer deadly pathogens.
Rapid advances in biotechnology mean that most countries with pharmaceutical and medical industries possess the knowledge and tools to develop biological weapons. And as technology and know-how spread, the risk of improper lab safety increases, with consequences ranging from hazardous lab accidents to the unwitting development of “superbugs” that are beyond the control of public health systems.
What Are Biological Weapons?
Biological weapons use microorganisms or natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals or plants. To act as a weapon, pathogens need a means for transmission. Delivery by bombs or missiles is possible but not necessary. For example, a country or a terrorist group might contaminate food and water supply or use insects, exposed individuals or aerosols to spread a pathogen. Recently, diseases like Ebola have proven highly infectious, lethal and a challenge to contemporary medicine.
What Countries Have Them?
Only 16 countries plus Taiwan have had or are currently suspected of having biological weapons programs: Canada, China, Cuba, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Libya, North Korea, Russia, South Africa, Syria, the United Kingdom and the United States.
There is widespread consensus against the possession and use of biological weapons. Most countries are party to the Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention [link], but there is no way to know whether countries are complying with their commitments.
Terrorist groups have already tried to use biological weapons. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo unsuccessfully tried to weaponize botulinum toxin and anthrax in the mid-1990s. In the days after the September 11 attacks in the United States, a series of anthrax-laced letters sent to several news agencies and two U.S. Senators killed five and sickened 17 others. Terrorists are drawn to biological weapons for their relative low cost, simple delivery and psychological impact.