by Leonard A. Cole
from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
SPECIAL ONLINE ISSUE - FEBRUARY 2002
Originally Published in the December 1996 Issue
LEONARD A. COLE is an adjunct professor of
political science and an associate in the program in
science, technology and society at Rutgers University in
Newark, N.J. He is an authority in the area of science
and public policy, with special expertise in policy
concerning biological and chemical warfare, radon and
various health issues.
He received a B.A. in
political science from the University of California,
Berkeley, in 1961 and a Ph.D. in political science from
Columbia University in 1970.
States and terrorists alike have shown a
growing interest in germ warfare.
More stringent arms-control efforts are
needed to discourage attacks. In 1995, on a whim, I asked a friend:
Which would worry you more, being attacked with a biological
weapon or a chemical weapon?
He looked quizzical.
“Frankly, I’m afraid of
Alzheimer’s,” he replied, and we shared a laugh.
He had elegantly dismissed my question
as an irrelevancy. In civilized society, people do not think about
The next day, on March 20, the nerve agent
sarin was unleashed in the Tokyo
subway system, killing 12 people and injuring 5,500. In Japan, no
less, one of the safest countries in the world. I called my friend,
and we lingered over the coincidental timing of my question. A
seemingly frivolous speculation one day, a deadly serious matter the
That thousands did not die from the Tokyo attack was attributed to
an impure mixture of the agent. A tiny drop of sarin, which
was originally developed in Germany in the 1930s, can kill within
minutes after skin contact or inhalation of its vapor. Like all
other nerve agents, sarin blocks the action of
acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme necessary for the transmission
of nerve impulses.
The cult responsible for the sarin attack,
Aum Shinrikyo (“Supreme Truth”),
was developing biological agents as well. If a chemical attack is
frightening, a biological weapon poses a worse nightmare. Chemical
agents are inanimate, but bacteria, viruses and other live agents
may be contagious and reproductive. If they become established in
the environment, they may multiply. Unlike any other weapon, they
can become more dangerous over time.
Certain biological agents incapacitate, whereas others kill. The
Ebola virus, for example, kills as many as 90 percent of its victims
in little more than a week. Connective tissue liquefies; every
orifice bleeds. In the final stages, Ebola victims become
convulsive, splashing contaminated blood around them as they twitch,
shake and thrash to their deaths.
For Ebola, there is no cure, no treatment. Even the manner in which
it spreads is unclear, by close contact with victims and their
blood, bodily fluids or remains or by just breathing the surrounding
air. Recent outbreaks in Zaire prompted the quarantine of sections
of the country until the disease had run its course.
The horror is only magnified by the thought that individuals and
nations would consider attacking others with such viruses. In
October 1992 Shoko Asahara, head of the Aum Shinrikyo cult,
and 40 followers traveled to Zaire, ostensibly to help treat Ebola
victims. But the group’s real intention, according to an October 31,
1995, report by the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on
Investigations, was probably to obtain virus samples, culture
them and use them in biological attacks.
Interest in acquiring killer organisms for sinister purposes is not
limited to groups outside the U.S.
On May 5, 1995, six weeks after the
Tokyo subway incident, Larry Harris, a laboratory technician
in Ohio, ordered the bacterium that causes bubonic plague from a
Maryland biomedical supply firm. The company, the American Type
Culture Collection in Rockville, Md., mailed him three vials of
Harris drew suspicion only when he called the term four days after
placing his order to find out why it had not arrived. Company
officials wondered about his impatience and his apparent
unfamiliarity with laboratory techniques, so they contacted federal
authorities. He was later found to be a member of a white
supremacist organization. In November 1995 he pled guilty in
federal court to mail fraud.
To get the plague bacteria, Harris needed no more than a credit card
and a false letterhead. Partially in response to this incident, an
antiterrorism law enacted this past April required the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention to monitor more closely shipments of
What would Harris have done with the bacteria?
He claimed he wanted to conduct research
to counteract Iraqi rats carrying “supergerms.” But if he had cared
to grow a biological arsenal, the task would have been frighteningly
simple. By dividing every 20 minutes, a single bacterium gives rise
to more than a billion copies in 10 hours. A small vial of
microorganisms can yield a huge number in less than a week. For some
diseases, such as anthrax, inhaling a few thousand bacteria - which
would cover an area smaller than the period at the end of this
sentence - can be fatal.
Kathleen C. Bailey, a former assistant director of the
U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, has visited several
biotechnology and pharmaceutical firms. She is “absolutely
convinced” that a major biological arsenal could be built with
$10,000 worth of equipment in a room 15 feet by 15. After all, one
can cultivate trillions of bacteria at relatively little risk to
one’s self with gear no more sophisticated than a beer fermenter and
a protein-based culture, a gas mask and a plastic overgarment.
Fortunately, biological terrorism has thus far been limited to very
One incident occurred in September 1984, when about 750 people
became sick after eating in restaurants in an Oregon town called
The Dalles. In 1986 Ma Anand Sheela confessed at a
federal trial that she and other members of a nearby cult that had
clashed with local Oregonians had spread salmonella bacteria on
salad bars in four restaurants; the bacteria had been grown in
laboratories on the cult’s ranch.
After serving two and a half years in
prison, Sheela, who had been the chief of staff for the cult leader,
Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (aka Osho),
was released and deported to Europe.
But as a 1992 report by the Office of Technology Assessment
indicated, both biological and chemical terrorism have been rare.
Also rare has been the use of biological
agents as weapons of war. Perhaps the first recorded incident
occurred in the 14th century, when an army besieging Kaffa, a
seaport on the Black Sea in the Crimea in Russia, catapulted
plague-infected cadavers over the city walls. In colonial America a
British officer reportedly gave germ-infested blankets from a
smallpox infirmary to Indians in order to start an epidemic among
The only confirmed instance in this
century was Japan’s use of plague and other bacteria against China
in the 1930s and 1940s.
As the 20th century draws to a close,
however, an unpleasant paradox has emerged.
More states than ever are signing
international agreements to eliminate chemical and biological arms.
Yet more are also suspected of developing these weapons despite the
treaties. In 1980 only one country, the Soviet Union, had been named
by the U.S. for violating the
1972 Biological Weapons Convention,
a treaty that prohibits the development or possession of biological
Since then, the number has ballooned. In 1989 Central Intelligence
Agency director William Webster reported that “at least 10
countries” were developing biological weapons.
By 1995, 17 countries had been named as
biological weapons suspects, according to sources cited by the
Office of Technology Assessment and at U.S. Senate committee
The first five of these countries -
Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and North Korea - are especially worrisome
in view of their histories of militant behavior.
Iraq, for example, has acknowledged the
claims of U.N. inspectors that during the 1991 Persian Gulf War it
possessed Scud missiles tipped with biological warheads.
A 1994 Pentagon report to Congress cited
instability in eastern Europe, the Middle East and Southwest Asia as
likely to encourage even more nations to develop biological and
As the 20th century draws to
a close, an unpleasant
paradox has emerged. More
states than ever are signing
international agreements to
eliminate chemical and
biological arms. Yet more
are also suspected of
developing these weapons
despite the treaties.
Reversing this trend should be of paramount concern to the community
of nations. Indeed, the elimination of biological as well as
chemical weaponry is a worthy, if difficult, goal. The failure of
this effort may increase the likelihood of the development of a
man-made plague from Ebola or some other gruesome agent.
Dedication to biological disarmament in particular should be
enhanced by another grim truth: in many scenarios, a large
population cannot be protected against a biological attack.
Vaccines can prevent some diseases,
but unless the causative agent is known in advance, such a safeguard
may be worthless.
Antibiotics are effective against
specific bacteria or classes of biological agents, but not against
all. Moreover, the incidence of infectious disease around the world
has been rising from newly resistant strains of bacteria that defy
treatment. In this era of biotechnology, especially, novel organisms
can be engineered against which vaccines or antibiotics are useless.
Nor do physical barriers against infection offer great comfort.
Fortunately, most biological agents have no effect on or through
intact skin, so respiratory masks and clothing would provide
adequate protection for most people. After a short while, the danger
could recede as sunlight and ambient temperatures destroyed the
agents. But certain microorganisms can persist indefinitely in an
Gruinard Island, off the coast of
Scotland, remained infected with anthrax spores for 40 years after
biological warfare tests were carried out there in the 1940s. And in
1981 Rex Watson, then head of Britain’s Chemical and
Biological Defense Establishment, asserted that if Berlin had
been bombarded with anthrax bacteria during World War II, the city
would still be contaminated.
Although many Israelis did become accustomed to wearing gas masks
during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it seems unrealistic to expect
large populations of civilians to wear such gear for months or
years, especially in warm regions. U.N. inspectors in Iraq report
that in hot weather they can scarcely tolerate wearing a mask for
more than 15 minutes at a time.
Calls for more robust biological defense programs have grown,
particularly after the Persian Gulf War. Proponents of
increased funding for biological defense research often imply that
vaccines and special gear developed through such work can protect
the public as well as troops. But the same truths hold for both the
military and civilians: unless an attack organism is known in
advance and is vulnerable to medical interventions, defense can be
Indeed, the Gulf War experience was in certain respects misleading.
Iraq’s biological weapons were understood to be anthrax bacilli
and botulinum toxin. (Although toxins are inanimate products
of microorganisms, they are treated as biological agents under the
terms of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention.)
Both are susceptible to existing
vaccines and treatments, and protection of military forces therefore
seemed possible. Research that would lead to enhanced defense
against these agents is thus generally warranted.
But the improbabilities of warding off attacks from less traditional
agents deserve full appreciation. Anticipating that research can
come up with defenses against attack organisms whose nature is not
known in advance seems fanciful.
Moreover, even with all its limitations, the cost of building a
national civil defense system against biological and chemical
weapons would be substantial. A 1969 United Nations report indicated
that the expense of stockpiling gas masks, antibiotics, vaccines and
other defensive measures for civilians could exceed $20 billion.
That figure, when adjusted for inflation, would now be about $80
Vaccines and protective gear are not the only challenges to
biological defense. Identifying an organism quickly in a battlefield
situation, too, is problematic. Even determining whether a
biological attack has been launched can be uncertain. Consequently,
the Pentagon has begun to focus more on detection.
In May 1994 Deputy Secretary of Defense John Deutch produced
an interagency report on counter-proliferation activities concerning
weapons of mass destruction. Biological agent detectors in
particular, he wrote, were “not being pursued adequately.”
To the annual $110 million budgeted for
the development of biological and chemical weapons detection, the
report recommended adding $75 million. Already under way were
Pentagon-sponsored programs involving such technologies as
ion-trap mass spectrometry and laser-induced breakdown
spectroscopy, approaches that look for characteristic chemical
signatures of dangerous agents in the air.
The army’s hope, which its spokespersons
admit is a long way from being realized, is to find a “generic”
detector that can identify classes of pathogens.
Meanwhile the military is also advancing a more limited approach
that identifies specific agents through antibody-antigen
combinations. The Biological Integrated Detection System (BIDS)
exposes suspected air samples to antibodies that react with a
particular biological agent. A reaction of the antibody would
signify the agent is present, a process that takes about 30 minutes.
BIDS can now identify four agents through antibody-antigen
Bacillus anthracis (anthrax
Y. pestis (bubonic plague)
botulinum toxin (the poison
released by botulism organisms)
staphylococcus enterotoxin B
(released by certain staph bacteria)
Laboratory investigations to identify
additional agents through antibody-antigen reactions are in
progress. But scores of organisms and toxins are viewed as potential
warfare agents. Whether the full range, or even most, will be
detectable by BIDS remains uncertain.
The most effective safeguard against biological warfare and
biological terrorism is, and will be, prevention.
To this end, enhanced intelligence and
regulation of commercial orders for pathogens are important. Both
approaches have been strengthened by provisions in the antiterrorism
bill enacted earlier this year. At the same time, attempts to
identify and control emerging diseases are gaining attention. One
such effort is ProMED (Program to Monitor Emerging
Diseases), which was proposed in 1993 by the 3,000-member
Federation of American Scientists.
Although focusing on disease outbreaks in general, supporters of
ProMED are sensitive to the possibility of man-made epidemics. The
ProMED surveillance system would include developing baseline data on
endemic diseases throughout the world, rapid reporting of unusual
outbreaks, and responses aimed at containing disease, such as
providing advice on trade and travel. Such a program could probably
distinguish disease outbreaks from hostile sources more effectively
than is currently possible.
In addition, steps to strengthen the 1972 Biological Weapons
Convention through verification arrangements - including on-site
inspections - should be encouraged. The 139 countries that are
parties to the convention are expected to discuss incorporating
verification measures at a review conference in December of this
After the last review conference, in
1991, a committee to explore such measures was established. VEREX,
as the group was called, has listed various possibilities ranging
from surveillance of the scientific literature to on-site
inspections of potential production areas, such as laboratories,
breweries and pharmaceutical companies.
Given the ease with which bioweapons can be produced,
individuals will always be able to circumvent international
agreements. But the absence of such agents from national arsenals -
and tightened regulations on the acquisition and transfer of
pathogens - will make them more difficult to obtain for hostile
purposes. Verification can never be foolproof, and therefore some
critics argue that verification efforts are a waste of time.
Proponents nonetheless assert that
sanctions following a detected violation would provide at least some
disincentive to cheaters and are thus preferable to no sanctions at
all. Furthermore, a strengthened global treaty underscores a
commitment by the nations of the world not to traffic in these
The infrequent use of biological weapons to date might be
explained in many ways. Some potential users have probably lacked
familiarity with how to develop pathogens as weapons; moreover, they
may have been afraid of infecting themselves.
Nations and terrorists alike might
furthermore be disinclined to use bioagents because they are
by nature unpredictable.
Through mutations, a bacterium or virus
can gain or lose virulence over time, which may be contrary to the
strategic desires of the people who released it. And once introduced
into the environment, a pathogen may pose a threat to anybody who
goes there, making it difficult to occupy territory.
But beneath all these pragmatic concerns lies another dimension that
deserves more emphasis than it generally receives: the moral
repugnance of these weapons. Their ability to cause great suffering,
coupled with their indiscriminate character, no doubt contributes to
the deep-seated aversion most people have for them. And that
aversion seems central to explaining why bioweapons have so
rarely been used in the past. Contrary to analyses that commonly
ignore or belittle the phenomenon, this natural antipathy should be
appreciated and exploited.
Even some terrorists could be reluctant
to use a weapon so fearsome that it would permanently alienate the
public from their cause.
The Poison Taboo
In recognition of these sentiments, the 1972 Biological Weapons
Convention describes germ weaponry as “repugnant to the
conscience of mankind.”
Such descriptions have roots that reach
back thousands of years. (Not until the 19th century were
microorganisms understood to be the cause of infection; before then,
poison and disease were commonly seen as the same. Indeed, the Latin
word for “poison” is “virus.”)
Among prohibitions in many civilizations were the poisoning of food
and wells and the use of poison weapons.
The Greeks and Romans condemned the use
of poison in war as a violation of ius gentium - the law of
nations. Poisons and other weapons considered inhumane were
forbidden by the Manu Law of India around 500 B.C. and among
the Saracens 1,000 years later. The prohibitions were reiterated by
Dutch statesman Hugo Grotius in his 1625 opus The Law of
War and Peace, and they were, for the most part, maintained
during the harsh European religious conflicts of the time.
Like the taboos against incest, cannibalism and other widely reviled
acts, the taboo against poison weapons was sometimes violated.
But the frequency of such violations may
have been minimized because of their castigation as a “defalcation
of proper principles,” in the words of the 18th- and 19th-century
English jurist Robert P. Ward.
Under the law of nations, Ward wrote,
“Nothing is more expressly forbidden
than the use of poisoned arms”.
Historian John Ellis van Courtland
Moon, now professor emeritus at Fitchburg State College in
Massachusetts, contends that growing nationalism in the 18th
century weakened the disinclinations about poison weapons. As a
result of what Moon calls “the nationalization of ethics,” military
necessity began to displace moral considerations in state policies;
nations were more likely to employ any means possible to attain
their aims in warfare.
In the mid-19th century, a few military leaders proposed that toxic
weapons be employed, although none actually were. Nevertheless, gas
was used in World War I.
The experience of large-scale chemical
warfare was so horrifying that it led to the 1925 Geneva Protocol,
which forbids the use of chemical and bacteriological agents in war.
Images of victims gasping, frothing and choking to death had a
profound impact. The text of the protocol reflects the global sense
of abhorrence. It affirmed that these weapons had been “justly
condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world.”
Chemical and biological weapons were used in almost none of the
hundreds of wars and skirmishes in subsequent decades - until Iraq’s
extensive chemical attacks during the Iran-Iraq war. Regrettably,
the international response to Iraqi behavior was muted or
ineffective. From 1983 until the war ended in 1988, Iraq was
permitted to get away with chemical murder. Fear of an Iranian
victory stifled serious outcries against a form of weaponry that had
been universally condemned.
The consequences of silence about Iraq’s behavior, though
unfortunate, were not surprising. Iraqi ability to use chemical
weapons with impunity, and their apparent effectiveness against
Iran, prompted more countries to arm themselves with chemical and
Ironically, in 1991 many of the
countries that had been silent about the Iraqi chemical attacks had
to face a chemically and biologically equipped Iraq on the
Potential Biological Agents
Bacillus anthracis. Causes anthrax. If bacteria
are inhaled, symptoms may develop in two to three days.
Initial symptoms resembling common respiratory infection
are followed by high fever, vomiting, joint ache and
labored breathing, and internal and external bleeding
lesions. Exposure may be fatal. Vaccine and antibiotics
provide protection unless exposure is very high.
Botulinum toxin. Cause of botulism, produced by
Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Symptoms appear 12 to 72
hours after ingestion or inhalation. Initial symptoms
are nausea and diarrhea, followed by weakness, dizziness
and respiratory paralysis, often leading to death.
Antitoxin can sometimes arrest the process.
Yersinia pestis. Causes bubonic plague, the Black
Death of the Middle Ages. If bacteria reach the lungs,
symptoms - including fever and delirium - may appear in
three or four days. Untreated cases are nearly always
fatal. Vaccines can offer immunity, and antibiotics are
usually effective if administered promptly.
Ebola virus. Highly contagious and lethal. May
not be desirable as a biological agent because of
uncertain stability outside of animal host. Symptoms,
appearing two or three days after exposure, include high
fever, delirium, severe joint pain, bleeding from body
orifices, and convulsions, followed by death. No known
To its credit, since the Persian Gulf War, much of the
international community has pressed Iraq about its unconventional
weapons programs by maintaining sanctions through the U.N. Security
Council resolutions require elimination
of Iraq’s biological weapons (and other weapons of mass
destruction), as well as information about past programs to develop
them. Iraq has been only partially forthcoming, and U.N. inspectors
continue to seek full disclosure.
But even now, U.N. reports are commonly dry recitations. Expressions
of outrage are rare. Any country or group that develops these
weapons deserves forceful condemnation. We need continuing reminders
that civilized people do not traffic in, or use, such weaponry. The
agreement by the U.S. and Russia to destroy their chemical
stockpiles within a decade should help.
Words of outrage alone, obviously, are not enough. Intelligence is
important, as are controls over domestic and international shipments
of pathogens and enhanced global surveillance of disease outbreaks.
Moreover, institutions that reinforce positive behavior and values
The highest priority of the moment in this regard is implementation
of the Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the
possession of chemical weapons. It lists chemicals that signatory
nations must declare to have in their possession. Unlike the
Biological Weapons Convention, the chemical treaty has extensive
provisions to verify compliance, including short-notice inspections
of suspected violations.
It also provides added inducements to
join through information exchanges and commercial privileges among
Respirator or gas mask.
Filters, usually made of activated charcoal, must block
particles larger than one micron. Overgarments are also
advisable to protect against contact with open wounds or
otherwise broken skin.
Protective shelter. Best if a closed room,
ideally insulated with plastic or some other
nonpermeable material and ventilated with filtered air.
Decontamination. Such traditional disinfectants
as formaldehyde are effective for sterilizing surfaces.
Vaccination. Must be for specific agent. Some
agents require several inoculations over an extended
period before immunity is conferred. For many agents, no
vaccine is available.
Antibiotics. Effective against some but not all
bacterial agents (and not effective against viruses).
For some susceptible bacteria, antibiotic therapy must
begin within a few hours of exposure - before symptoms
Detection systems. Only rudimentary field units
currently available for a few specific agents. Research
is under way to expand the number of agents that can be
detected in battlefield situations or elsewhere.
In 1993 the chemical treaty was opened for signature.
By October 1996, the pact had been
signed by 160 countries and ratified by 64, one less than the number
required for the agreement to enter into force. One disappointing
holdout is the U.S. In part because of disagreements over the
treaty’s verification provisions, the U.S. Senate recently delayed a
vote on the pact.
Implementing this chemical weapons treaty should add momentum to the
current negotiations over strengthening the Biological Weapons
Conversely, failure of the Chemical
Weapons Convention to fulfill expectations will dampen prospects
for a verification regime for the biological treaty. The most likely
consequence would be the continued proliferation of chemical and
biological arsenals around the world. The longer these weapons
persist, the more their sense of illegitimacy erodes, and the more
likely they will be used - by armies and by terrorists.
As analysts have noted, subnational groups commonly use the types of
weapons that are in national arsenals. The absence of biological and
chemical weapons from national military inventories may diminish
their attractiveness to terrorists. According to terrorism expert
Brian M. Jenkins, leaders of
Aum Shinrikyo indicated that their
interest in chemical weapons was inspired by Iraq’s use of chemicals
during its war with Iran.
Treaties, verification regimes, global surveillance, controlled
exchanges of pathogens - all are the muscle of arms control. Their
effectiveness ultimately depends on the moral backbone that supports
them and the will to enforce them rigorously.
By underscoring the moral sense behind the formal exclusion of
biological weapons, sustaining their prohibition becomes more