By Farah Shafiq
Bill gates has warned world leaders that Bioterrorism could kill more people than nuclear war, but do we know what bioterrorism is? Bioterrorism also known as biological warfare is defined as use of infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, germs, fungi or toxins against enemy’s soldiers, civilians, animals or crops as a weapon of war. Small pox viruses and bacterium like Yersinia pestis, which causes plague are examples of such biological agents. As with other forms of terrorism, its purposes include the undermining of morale, creating chaos, or achieving political goals These weapons are used for either killing or incapacitating people. In the past, the weapons employed by nations were more easily recognizable and defendable. For example, surveillance allows missile silos to be detected, and counter-strategies put in place to deal with the launch of the missiles. Microorganisms, however, by virtue of their small size can be readily hidden from detection.
Biological weapons have been called poor nation’s atomic bomb, because they can be developed and used by nations who lack resources to invest in their own nuclear program. Nuclear weapons require expensive radioactive materials, and both nuclear and chemical weapons require significant scientific infrastructure to develop and deploy them. On the contrary, biological weapons do not require rare materials, significant infrastructure or advance scientific knowledge. Biological weapons can potentially be developed and even mass-produced with commercially available equipment found even in high schools. Microorganisms can be purchased from the research labs of universities and other institutions or obtained from natural sources. The fact that every nation possesses the capability to create biological weapons increases the probability of bioterrorism in the near future. Although, there are more than 1,200 biological agents that could be used to cause illness or death, relatively few possess the necessary characteristics to make them ideal candidates for biological warfare or terrorism agents. The ideal biological agents are relatively easy to acquire, process, and use. Only small amounts (on the order of pounds and often less) would be needed to kill or incapacitate hundreds of thousands of people in a metropolitan area. Biological warfare agents are easy to hide and difficult to detect or protect against. They are invisible, odourless, tasteless, and can be spread silently.
Biological warfare is a modern threat with a long history as far back as 400 BC. Scythian archers infected their arrows by dipping them in decomposing bodies or in blood mixed with manure. Ancient people often placed corpses in drinking wells of their enemies to gain a military advantage by contaminating the water. Sometimes they would throw diseased bodies over the city walls. One recorded case was the siege of the Crimean seaport of Caffa (now Fiodosia, Ukarine) in 1347. Mongol invaders used catapults to throw the dead bodies of plague victims into the walled city. When defenders of the city withdrew and fled to their home in Genoa, Italy, they took the diseases with them. In another infamous case of biological warfare, British soldiers in North America in the 1700’s gave Native Indians blankets as gifts to spread the small pox disease among the Indian population.
In the late 1800s, Microbiologists made significant advances in discovering and cultivating specific types of germs responsible for diseases like anthrax. Scientific advancements like theses proved invaluable in treating and eradicating many diseases, but they also created the potential that germs can be deliberately cultivated for use as weapons. In World War I, Germany tried to infect sheep with Anthrax which were meant to export to Russia. Meanwhile, the French also tried to infect German horses with a contagious disease called ‘glanders’. In World War II, biological weapons were used by Japan against Chinese targets. The United States was accused of using biological weapons in the Korean War, which the US strongly denied, these allegations have not yet been proven. The Soviet Union was accused of biological warfare when a mysterious yellow rain appeared in Laos and Cambodia.
Biological agents could either be found in the environment using advanced detection devices, after specific testing or by a doctor reporting a medical diagnosis of an illness caused by an agent. Animals may also be early victims and shouldn’t be overlooked. Early detection of a biological agent in the environment allows for a specific and timely treatment of victims exposed to the agent. Protective measures can be taken against biological warfare agents. These should be started early (if enough warning is received), but definitely once it is suspected that a biological agent has been used.
Bioterrorism being a looming threat, we must think seriously about using the knowledge of science for the betterment of humanity not for devilish purposes. We must live and let others live peacefully!