The Poor Man’s Bomb

13 June 2013 by Annelie Wendeberg, posted in Biological Warfare

The History of Biological Warfare, Part 2

Progress in science and technology is often reflected in the weapons and strategies used in warfare. Advances in biological warfare are intimately linked to the biological sciences and its history can be divided into four eras (adapted from G.D. Koblentz).

(1) Pre-germ theory. Disease was believed to be spread through Miasma - a poisonous mist emanating from decomposing organic matter. This was, in fact, a fairly good description in a time when microbiological technologies other than making cheese and brewing beer were lacking.

"bad air" spreads cholera. National Library of Medicine via Wikimedia Commons

The knowledge that the sick, their bodily fluids, and anything that touched them can transmit disease is mirrored in the biological weapons used: Emperor Barbarossa poisoned water wells with human bodies in Italy. The Tartars catapulted their own dead soldiers into the besieged city of Kaffa, the Spanish mixed wine with blood of leprosy patients to sell to their French foes, the Polish fired saliva from rabid dogs into the faces of their enemies, and the British distributed blankets from smallpox patients among Native Americans. (This list is actually much much longer).

(2) Applied microbiology. The conclusive proof that bacteria cause disease was delivered by several scientists, most notably John Snow, Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur in the 1860s and 1870s. With the invention of solid media to isolate bacteria, and light microscopes to investigate and characterize them, a new era of microbiology, medicine, and germ warfare was born. From that day forward, large amounts of pathogens could be produced in a fairly short time.

The father of epidemiology, John Snow mapped cholera cases around the pump at Broad Street in London, 1854. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The first to use isolated pathogens as offensive weapons was Anton Dilger who grew large batches of anthrax and glanders in his basement in Washington DC, not far from the White House. His bacterial cultures have been used in an extensive sabotage campaign to infect cavalry and draft animals delivered from neutral countries to allied forces during World War I.

In World War II, the Japanese attacked Chinese civilians and soldiers with a variety of deadly bacteria, among them Bacillus anthracis (causes anthrax) and Yersinia pestis (causes the bubonic plague).

Both countries’ first attempts at systematic germ warfare were the only confirmed large-scale attacks during the twentieth century and neither proved as reliable as anticipated.

(3) Industrial Microbiology. By the end of World War II, microorganisms as well as vaccines and antibodies could be produced at the industrial scale. Virtually all post-war bio-weapon developments were based on scientific advances in the fields of epidemiology, biotechnology, microbiology and aerosol production and dissemination of pathogens. The United States, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union, and Iraq launched large bio-weapon programs. This era also saw the first, although crude, large-scale production of viruses as bio-weapons. However, the major innovation was the production of aerosols of pathogenic bacteria or their spores. In the case of anthrax, the mortality jumps to a staggering >90% if anthrax aerosols are inhaled, when compared to ingestion (25 - 60% mortality) or infection through an open wound (20% mortality) if left untreated.

(4) Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. In the early 1970s, the Bio Weapon Convention, the birth of genetic engineering, and the biotechnological revolution gave rise to the fourth era in biological warfare. By manipulating a pathogen’s genetic content, this same pathogen can be made resistant to antibiotics and vaccines - both defense weapons in bacterial warfare. Even formerly harmless bacteria can be transformed into dangerous ones. Newly emerging fields, such as synthetic biology, systems biology, and RNA interference and our deeper understanding of genomics, neurobiology, and immunology open up a vast range of opportunities for scientists that aim at developing biological weapons.

Image of the envelope sent to Senator Tom Daschle during the 2001 anthrax attacks. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since the invention of the club, disease claimed more lives on battle fields than human-made weapons. This ratio started shifting with the development of antibiotics, better hygiene, and vaccines on the one side, and weapons of mass destruction on the other.

With the dawn of genetic engineering, science achieved the dangerous ability to create living weapons of mass destruction. However, these modern versions of “the poor man’s bomb” - as bio-weapons have often been dubbed - are in fact exceedingly expensive. Molecular biology and microbiology laboratories, well trained scientists, and safety measures necessary to work with deadly bacteria and viruses are probably out of reach for financially weak organizations, no matter their aggression potential*.

*This last statement is merely an assessment, not a fact, and largely depends on the degree of recklessness (economize by ignoring safety measures) and organizational talent (find a buddy who works in a molecular biology lab) and a number of other factors I did not take into account.


This post is dedicated to Peter Kavanagh who told me to write a series about biological warfare.


Sources & further reading:

“Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security (Cornell Studies in Security Affairs)” by Gregory D. Koblentz

“The Fourth Horseman“ by Robert Koenig

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