War have been a part of human history since the beginning of time. However, the agents used to carry out warfare have changed and evolved just like humans did over time. First people use to hurt each other with their bare hands and sharp nails or throw stones or sticks at each other. Then someone thought, lets join the stone and stick, which led to the development of spheres and other things specially designed to kill. With the discovery of fire came a new way to cause mass destruction over a large scale. As science evolved, so did the weapons used in wars. From swords, crossbows and canons to guns, bombs, and tanks. But then came the era of nuclear warfare, things so powerful that it could destroy the entire world as we know it. However, an agent of war many people don’t know about and whose use has increased with the advancements of biotechnology and microbiology are bioweapons. Bioterrorism technically is defined as the violent use (by a person or group of individuals) of biological substance or toxins to injure. For example, this covid-19 pandemic which could be a form of bioterrorism, killing millions. But lets start from the first advent of the use of bioweapons.
Throughout human history, bioterrorism has been an issue. The Assyrians poisoned their enemies’ wells with ergot, a toxin-producing fungus typically found in Rye. This is one of the first stories of the use of bioterrorism and goes back to the 600 BC. In a more recently published account, Pizarro delivered the native Indians clothing tainted with smallpox in the 1500s when he conquered South America. Another similar report claims that Britain may have utilised diseases to undermine its adversaries during North American colonisation. The country could intentionally have sent Native Americans blankets tainted with pox. Bioweapons spread fast and cause mass destruction. The Convention against biologic weapons, which forbids the manufacturing, development, stockpiling and use of biological weapons was signed by 103 states under the guidance of the United Nations in 1972. Its however, well established that even superpowers of this world are not ready for an attack or outbreak of a bioweapon like smallpox and ebola. The high fatality rate among infected people is attributed to the possibility of aerosol transmission and the relative simplicity of large-scale manufacturing. Anthrax and especially smallpox are regarded the most significant threats of bioterrorism.
During world war 2 extensive research was carried out and many bioweapons were stockpiled by various countries from both the allied and axis powers. In an attack performed by religious-cult Aum Shinrikyo in a Tokyo metro station in 1995 using sarin, a chemical affecting the nervous system, resulted in the revelation of the risk of bioterrorism. Pathogens can also be engineered in the lab to give antibiotic resistance and higher virulence factor for the use of bioweapons. But science can also be used to create defences against these pathogens. Vaccination therapies, genome sequencing of the organism and drug designing are just among the wide biodefense’s science has to offer.
Some of common bioweapons used are:
- Anthrax: Highly infectious and deadly, caused by bacterium bacillus anthrax. Having an incubation period of 7 days it can affect animals, humans, and children. It can be clinical diagnosed as either cutaneous, gastrointestinal, or inhaled. Its however, difficult to diagnose as it mimics the symptoms of a common cold.
- Smallpox: Highly contagious and deadly, smallpox has been eradicated from the world thanks to vaccines, however smallpox vials had been stored in US and Russia in the name of research and these vials have been reportedly stolen, leaving the entire world population which is mostly not vaccinated against smallpox due to its eradication, at a high risk. If there is a smallpox attack, there aren’t enough vaccines for most of the people.
- Cholera: Bacterium caused disease which was endemic in many parts of the world a few decades ago, cholera is transmitted through water ways and can be used as a bioweapon.
- Salmonella: It’s a species of bacterium which infects the food you eat. Mixed with any food, it could cause gastrointestinal problems. However, it’s not considered that dangerous as food can be removed from the market.
- Botulism: Produced by clostridium botulism its one of the most fatal toxins in the world. It can be inhaled or be present in your food, mostly canned food. Causing paralysis, vision problems suffocation within days or hours depending on the amount consumed, this bioweapon is highly dangerous and just need a few micrograms to kill millions. Once a person inhales it, its most certain death because an antidote does not exist for the toxin.
- Ebola: Causing death in 90% of the people infected, Ebola is a much-feared virus that can be used as a bioweapon.
- Ricin: Another toxin which is famous for being the bioweapon in the “umbrella murder case” its found in castor beans.
Although diseases are genetically modifiable, there is no evidence of virulence increase and the ability to promote an epidemic. This is no guarantee, however, that this risk is gone from the world. Because bioterrorism is a problem of global security, intelligence agencies have the responsibility to verify their actual potential and expansion. Some military specialists think Iraq still has an active bio war programme. A few years ago, a rare disease triggered an epidemic in Iraqi wheat fields, suspected of escaping a pathogenic infection from bioterrorism investigative facilities. Intelligence, constant monitoring, early warning systems, information sharing between agencies and cooperation should be part of any preventive programme in bioterrorism. Legislation should be in place that allows the government to apply quarantines to suspected people or items infected with infection, confiscate property and use hospitals for the benefit of the public. Finally, nobody should presume that biology and biotechnology science are always used for good. Biotechnology could be used in states that sponsor terrorism in the development of mass destruction pathogens and pests. Recent events have made us conscious of the worldwide community, and local events often have an impact around the world. It is crucial that one must be aware that science with all its benefit can also cause bioterrorism.