- Modify an existing deadly but rare disease into one that could be cheaply mass-produced
- Improve the ability of a microorganism to survive after being sprayed from ships or aircraft or released with intense heat from bombs or missiles
- Toughening viruses or other bioweapons so that they can overcome the human immune system's defenses. (This can be achieved by altering the antigens on the outer surface of viruses.)
- Speeding up the action of a disease organism so it causes illness within hours rather than days. If the incubation period is too short, however, the agent will not have time to be communicated to other humans.
- Deploying microbes against livestock or crop plants so that a nation's food supply and economy would be damaged
John D. Holcom
Biological warfare is the intentional use of microorganisms or toxins (poisonous substances produced by living organisms or synthetic processes) to cause death or disease in humans, animals, or plants. Biological weapons may be bacteria, viruses, or toxins. Weight for weight, they can be hundreds of thousands of times more lethal than the most deadly chemical agents.
The international biohazard symbol is shown to the right. It is used to indicate the presence of a dangerous biological agent.
Ease of Production
Biological weapons can be produced easily in a short amount of time. Thus, the challenge is not in production, but rather in conducting an effective delivery to a specific target. Biological agents can also be used to destroy crops and animals--cut off the target's food source. These weapons have not been used extensively in modern warfare; they are used more to threaten the enemy. At present, over 100 countries have the capacity to produce biological weapons on a large scale.
Factors Affecting the Effectiveness of a Biological Weapon
Many factors affect how many people die as a result of the release of a biological agent. The type of agent--infectious or contagious--affects whether indirect contact will spread the disease. Weather conditions, topographical features, and the method of dispersal all come into play. The effectiveness of a bioweapon depends on the amount of material that reaches the lungs and remains in the respiratory tract. Environmental factors such as light and temperature may weaken a biological agent.
"It's scary. It's scary, you know. We talk about Iran, we talk about other countries getting nuclear weapons, which of course is a threat, and they're certainly weapons of mass destruction, no argument, but weapons that are equally, I feel, equally dangerous and can involve as many or more people is the threat of bioterrorism, where countries, you know, rogue nations can develop what we call weapons-grade germs and they can unleash it on populations. And you're talking about, really, tens or hundred of thousands, possibly millions of people involved." - listen
Mr. Barry Zimmerman, Author of Killer Germs
Some of the most common characteristics of biological weapons are:
Biological agents could easily enter, survive and multiply in the victim's body.
Biological weapons have the potential to bring deadly effects upon their victims.
Availability of Caccines
There is a vaccine in existence for emergency purposes (eg. A friendly target became infected)
Delivery as an Aerosol
They could be dispersed in the atmosphere as tiny particles
Difficulty in Detecting Immediately
Hundreds of thousands of people may be exposed before they know it. Oftentimes, people are unable to see, smell, or taste the agents. Aerosol clouds are often invisible.
A First-Responder's Perspective: Biological Agents are Difficult to Detect Immediately
"Biological agents-It may take up to 72 hours to know that it's actually a biological attack, depending on the agent that's being released. If there is nobody that is directly initially willing to accept responsibility for the incident, you may or may not know what's going on with it. It may just be a case that you have several people that are sick. Those are the kinds of things that you look for. A responder is looking for multiple patients with like symptoms..." - listen
Mr. Doug Vorp, Deputy Chief, Plainsboro Fire Company.
Bacteria are microscopic, single-celled, prokaryotic organisms that carry out a wide range of biochemical processes. Many have beneficial effects such as enriching the surrounding soil. However, some may cause disease by invading body tissue or by producing harmful toxins. Bacteria cause strep throat, dysentary, undulant fever, cholera, diphtheria, Lyme disease, salmonella, pulmonary tuberculosis, and the bubonic plague.
Viruses are organisms that are 100 times smaller than bacteria. They consist of genetic material surrounded by a protective protein coat. After invading cells, viruses take over the cell's reproductive machinery to reproduce themselves. In doing so, they cause disease and sometimes death. Examples of viral diseases include influenza, AIDS, chickenpox, mumps, measles, yellow fever, dengue fever, smallpox, hepatitis, Ebola, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis.
Toxins are poisonous substances produced by living organisms or synthetic processes. They can harm human beings and other animals. They are nearly always proteins that are capable of causing disease on contact with body tissue. Toxins cause injuries as varied from mild bee stings to deadly botulism. In nature, they are produced for predation and defense by spiders, snakes, jellyfish, wasps, poison dart frogs, the deadly nightshade, and honeybees. Toxins include hemotoxins, which destroy red blood cells; necrotoxins, which destroy all types of tissue they encounter (necrosis); and neurotoxins, which affect the nervous system.
What about fungi?
Fungi are saprobic organisms, meaning they are responsible for the decay and decomposition of organic matter. Although they do not usually cause disease in humans, they commonly destroy staple crops such as wheat and rice, which many people depend on for food. Thus, the use of fungi as a biological weapon can ultimately result in hunger and economic problems.
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What can you do to protect yourself against a bioterrorist threat? Learn some of the practical (and obvious) measures that one can take in case of biological attack.
With the advent of genetic engineering and biotechnology, scientists are now able to play with the very genetic fabric of life itself. Recombinant DNA technology can allow genes from one species to be transplanted to another. These advances could allow scientists to create "supergerms" with no known defense.
On the bright side, some experts believe that the "supergerm" scenario is exaggerated. They doubt that new genetic enginering techniques will be able to produce harmful pathogens that can be effectively stored and delivered to their target. The development, production, storage, and use of complex biological agents involve complicated processes.
Even with these reservations, all scientists agree that genetic engineering has the potential to:
Chemical and biological weapons are not the same. Although they are commonly associated, chemical weapons kill or injure by poisoning, while biological weapons kill or injure by causing disease.
To see similarities and differences betwen biological and chemical weapons, click here.
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- Vorp, Doug. Personal Interview. 5 May 2006.
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