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Understanding Biological Threats

  • Understanding the Biological Weapons Threat

    Gram-for-gram, biological weapons are the deadliest weapons ever produced. While few countries are suspected of maintaining offensive biological weapons, many possess the capability to rapidly produce and weaponize biological agents if they choose to do so. Following the 2001 anthrax letter attacks in the United States, the possibility of bioterrorism has reinvigorated efforts to criminalize activities associated with the misuse of biological materials. The Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which prohibits the development, production, stockpiling, and acquisition of biological weapons, lacks verification provisions to ensure its members are not secretly maintaining biological weapons programs. The difficulty of detecting clandestine programs due to the dual-use nature of biotechnology and the uneven and often meager preparedness of many states’ public health systems for a major disease outbreak pose ongoing challenges to the international community.

  • What is a Biological Weapon?

    Biological weapons use microorganisms and natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals, or plants.  Biological weapons can be derived from: bacteria (anthrax, plague, tularemia); viruses (smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers); rickettsia (Q fever and epidemic typhus); biological toxins botulinum toxin, staphylococcus enterotoxin B); and fungi (San Joaquin Valley fever, mycotoxins). These agents can be deployed as biological weapons when paired with a delivery system, such as a missile or aerosol device. Generally, the danger associated with a particular pathogen can be measured by how effectively it kills (lethality); how easily it spreads (infectivity); and how likely it is to cause disease in an affected organism (virulence).  However, other factors such as ease of dispersal, responsiveness to medical treatment, the availability of vaccines, the infective dose, and a pathogen’s ability to survive during dispersal or storage (stability) affect a pathogen’s suitability as a weapon. For example, although anthrax cannot be transmitted from person-to-person and therefore will not continue to spread, it poses a serious threat because it can be dispersed as an aerosol and is difficult to treat. Pneumonic plague is highly lethal and contagious, but is generally treatable with modern medicines.  

  • Who Has Had or Continues to Have Biological Weapons?

    Warring parties have used primitive biological weapons since the beginning of recorded history.  In the 20th century Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Germany, France, Iraq, Libya, and South Africa at one point possessed known biological weapons programs. [1] While these countries now participate in the BTWC, the treaty lacks mechanisms for verifying that countries are not engaged in banned activities.  During World War I, Germany undertook limited biological attacks on military animals. More notoriously, Japan released plague and cholera infected fleas against Chinese civilians and soldiers during World War II. Several countries have stockpiled biological weapons in significant quantities.  Most egregiously, the Soviet Union violated the BTWC by maintaining the largest known offensive BW program into the 1990s.  In addition to anti-crop and anti-livestock agents, this program produced Marburg, anthrax, smallpox, plague, botulinum toxin, tularemia, and Q fever.  The Soviets also genetically engineered strains resistant to antibiotics.  In 2008, the U.S. Congressional Research Service listed China, Cuba, Egypt, Iran, Israel, North Korea, Russia, Syria, and Taiwan, as commonly-discussed potential biological weapons countries, but without a clear standard of evidence and with varying degrees of certainty. [2]

  • The Bioterrorism Threat

    Several non-state actors have developed or attempted to develop biological weapons. Over the past 25 years, the diffusion of technical know-how has dramatically increased the threat posed by bioterrorism. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo unsuccessfully attempted to weaponize botulinum toxin and anthrax in the mid-1990s.  However, it later became known that the cult likely never had bacteria capable of producing botulinum toxin, and were working with a vaccine strain of anthrax that cannot cause human disease. In 2001, a series of anthrax-laced letters sent to several news agencies and two U.S. Senators killed five and sickened 17 others. While the FBI identified Dr. Bruce Ivins, a senior biodefense researcher with decades of experience in anthrax research as the perpetrator, debate continues as to the strength of the evidence against him. The difficulties encountered in investigating the 2001 anthrax mailings (also known as the Amerithrax case), highlighted the limitations of microbial forensics. Attributing responsibility for biological attacks, absent a credible claim by the perpetrator, will continue to present challenges even with improved microbial forensics.

  • The Biological Threat is Constantly Changing and Evolving

    Over the past 25 years the biotechnology revolution has made increasingly powerful technologies more widely available, and at lower costs. Many previously tedious and labor-intensive processes have been simplified or even automated, decreasing the personnel and financial requirements for a biological weapons program. New technologies continue to broaden the scope of what is possible for both large-scale and more limited programs. For example, synthetic biology permits the human manufacture of genetic material for eradicated or controlled diseases. Also of significant concern are new methods that allow scientists to cross the properties of chemical and biological agents.  Such techniques could be used to create novel agents that enable perpetrators to control their victims’ behavior. Historically, the USSR misused several advanced techniques.  Soviet scientists engineered diseases to make them resistant to known medical treatments and also purportedly created “superbugs” by crossing the properties of highly lethal and contagious diseases. From a public health perspective, both the emergence of new diseases and the natural evolution of pathogens are constantly changing the nature of the biological weapons threat.  For example, emerging diseases such as Ebola have proven highly infectious, lethal, and beyond the control of contemporary medicine.

  • What Dual-Use Challenges Exist?

    The dual-use nature of bioresearch equipment and processes raises proliferation concerns. In order to develop vaccines and treatments, life scientists must use many of the same methods and materials used to produce biological weapons.  Efforts to monitor and control biological weapons proliferation thus require ingenuity and effective leadership.  The biotechnology industry continues to grow and globalize, and an ever-increasing list of countries and institutions operate high-containment laboratories for research on high-risk pathogens. Most of this research is beneficial, performed with the intent to find new treatments and cures for disease. Therefore, a major challenge lies in shaping policies which both promote peaceful/defensive research and minimize the possibility of misuse and/or illicit biological weapons activities. Furthermore, the worldwide growth of the life sciences may increase the risks of accidents involving high-risk pathogens. Improper lab safety could lead not only to hazardous lab accidents, but perhaps also to the unwitting development of “superbugs” beyond the control of the public health system. Globally uneven or ineffective oversight of sensitive research, such as genetic engineering and research on virulent diseases, thus poses serious risks.

  • How is the International Community Working to Reduce the Biological Threat?

    The Geneva Protocol (1925) and the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) (1972) prohibit the use of biological weapons. The BTWC also prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons.  Of the countries most likely to be technologically capable of producing biological weapons, only Egypt, Israel, and Syria are not BTWC members. However, because the BTWC lacks verification and inspection protocols, the treaty is not capable of monitoring whether its members are in compliance with their commitments. Thus, the Soviet Union easily violated the BTWC’s prohibitions, maintaining a program with 40 facilities and 60,000 staff despite being a state party to the BTWC.  Although Russia announced in 1992 that it was ending its program, a lack of transparency makes it impossible to verify the cessation of all of its activities.  Iraq, a BTWC signatory, also engaged in banned activities at least into the 1990s, weaponizing anthrax, aflatoxin, and enough botulinum toxin to administer a lethal dose to three times the world’s population at that time. North Korea is also believed to hold a large BW program. Strengthening the transparency of biodefense programs and dual-use life sciences activities, developing monitoring tools, and ensuring the BTWC's continued relevance in the face of technological innovation represent ongoing challenges.

  • Beyond Treaties: Export Controls and Biological Threat Reduction

    The Australia Group, created in 1985, harmonizes export controls in participating states to minimize, if not eliminate, sales to customers likely to misuse BW-related materials. However, the fast pace of new technology development greatly complicates its efforts. Global Security Engagement, a proposed extension of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, emphasizes outreach and engagement programs with practitioners worldwide. Continued implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1540 will also help fill some of the gaps in biological weapons nonproliferation, as the resolution requires all countries to implement measures aimed at preventing non-state actors from acquiring NBC weapons, related materials, and their means of delivery.

  • Sources:

    [1] U.S. Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, Technologies Underlying Weapons of Mass Destruction, OTA-BP-ISC-115 (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 1993).
    [2] Paul Kerr, “Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Weapons and Missiles: Status and Trends,” CRS Report for Congress RL30699 (Washington, D.C.: The Library of Congress, Updated 20 February 2008).
    [3] U.S. Department of Defense, Weapons of Mass Destruction Technologies (ADA 330102) (Washington, DC: Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology, 1998).
    [4] Brigadier General Russ Zajtchuk, MC, U.S. Army, ed., Textbook of Military Medicine, Part I: Warfare, Weaponry, and the Casualty; Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare (Washington, DC: Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army, United States of America: 1997).
    [5] National Academy of Sciences, Globalization, Biosecurity, and the Future of the Life Sciences (Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2006).

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