The use of biological and chemical weapons is considered the most heinous type of warfare. When it was first tried on a large scale in 1915 at Ypres, France, against French, Algerian and Canadian troops, the German High Command had a hard time finding officers who would participate in the use of poison gas against an enemy. It was considered unchivalrous, indiscriminate, dangerous and possibly setting a precedent for reprisal. Not to mention illegal, under The Hague convention on rules of warfare.
Nowadays, the idea of taking advantage of the ability of bacteria to reproduce, mutate and produce toxins makes some experts fear the use of biological weapons more than nuclear weapons.
Here’s a look at biological and chemical weapons, their history and application in warfare.
What are biological and chemical weapons?
Biological weapons are based on naturally occurring organisms that cause disease. The two most common examples are the bacteria Bacillus anthracis, which produces a toxin, and smallpox, a highly infectious viral disease.
Chemical weapons are poisons such as mustard gas and nerve gases like sarin.
How do biological and chemical weapons work?
Anthrax bacteria produce shell-like spores that allow them to live in a dormant state in soil. When used as a weapon, the spores enter the lungs where they are carried into the blood and immune systems. The spores become active, reproduce in large numbers and release a devastating toxin that is lethal to cells. If enough spores are inhaled, it can kill.
Colourless, odourless gas. Attacks nervous system
|Blurred vision, chest tightness, nausea, vomiting, convulsion, heart rate fluctuations, loss of consciousness, seizure, eventual paralysis and death||Can kill within two to 15 minutes of exposure. Extremely toxic||Compressed oxygen, forced oxygen mask. Immediate decontamination and life support|
Two forms: pulmonary (more deadly) and cutaneous, relatively large, spore-forming bacteria found in soil
|Initial symptoms are fever, malaise, fatigue then respiratory distress, septic shock||If vaccinated before exposure and treated with antibiotics after exposure then good chance of survival. Death within 24 or 36 hours without vaccine and very quick, heavy dose of antibiotics||Penicillin but bacteria may be resistant. Vaccines available|
Highly infectious viral disease. Last recorded naturally-occurring case eradicated in 1977 after aggressive worldwide vaccination campaign
|Influenza-like symptoms. Rash spreading over body. Pus-filled blisters develop. Complications: blindness, pneumonia, kidney damage||Unvaccinated mortality rate is about 30 per cent||Early treatment with vaccine (availability limited)|
Toxin derived from castor bean
|Toxicity only exceeded by botulinus and tetanus toxins||Nausea, muscle spasms, fever vomiting, convulsions, death. Fluid build-up in lungs leads to respiratory distress||Takes effect in few hours, can kill in three days. No antitoxin or vaccine available|
Neurotoxin released by bacteria Clostridium botulinum
|Most poisonous substance known. Associated naturally with rotting food in infected cans||If toxin is ingested or breathed in, symptoms of nerve disruption occur. Cold, flu-like symptoms with trace of numbness in lips, fingertips, double vision, chest paralysis. Death from respiratory failure||Untreated mortality nearly 100 per cent. Treated mortality 25 per cent. Recovery complete but slow (months). Quick administration of antitoxin essential|
Rare result of bubonic plague
|Caused by infected flea bite. If turns into pneumonic plague then becomes contagious and virulent form of pneumonia. Symptoms include fever, chills, cough, difficulty breathing, and rapid shock||50 to 90 per cent if untreated; 15 per cent when diagnosed and treated for all plagues||Antibiotic treatment as soon as possible|
|Tularaemia or rabbit fever
Biological infection of wild animals in the Northern Hemisphere in humans bitten by ticks by contact with infected animal tissue
|Incubation period of 2 to 10 days. High fever, skin reaction where bitten or scratched, aching, swollen glands||Fatal in about 5 per cent of cases. Without treatment, risk of death can jump to more than 30 per cent, depending on the form of the disease||Treated with antibiotics. No vaccine available|
|Sources: EPA, CDC|
The history of biological weapons is surprisingly long. Almost as soon as humans figured out how to make arrows, they were dipping them in animal feces to poison them.
The Roman Empire used animal carcasses to contaminate their enemies’ wells. This had the effect of both demoralizing their enemies and making them sick. And a demoralized, sick army is an easier one to beat. This strategy was used again in Europe’s many wars, in the American Civil War and even into the 20th century.
Carthaginian leader Hannibal is credited with an interesting use of biological weapons in 184 BC. In anticipation of a naval battle with the Pergamenes, he ordered his troops to fill clay pots with snakes. During the battle, Hannibal sent the pots crashing down on the deck on the Pergamene ship. The confused Pergamenes lost the battle, having to fight both Hannibal’s forces and a ship full of snakes.
In 1346, Tartar forces led by Khan Janibeg attacked the city of Kaffa, catapulting the plague-infected bodies of their own men over the city’s walls. Using dead bodies and excrement as weapons continued in Europe during the Black Plague of the 14th and 15th centuries. Even as late as the early 18th century, Russian troops fighting Sweden resorted to catapulting plagued bodies over the city walls of Reval.
Biological warfare came to the New World in the 15th century. Spanish conquistador Pizarro gave clothing contaminated with the smallpox virus to natives in South America. Britain’s Lord Jeffery Amherst continued the practice into the late 18th century, spreading smallpox among Native Americans during the French-Indian War by giving them blankets that had been used at a hospital treating smallpox victims.
In the First World War, the Germans used poison gas on their Eastern and Western fronts after 1915. They were also accused of infecting livestock with the bacteria that cause anthrax and glanders and shipping them to enemy countries, but no hard evidence of this could be found.
In 1918, the Japanese military formed a special unit to investigate biological weapons. Britain and the United States followed in 1942, even after the signing of the Geneva Convention prohibiting the use of chemical and biological weapons, because of fears that the Germans and Japanese were developing them. The U.S. ended its program in 1969.
In 1972, 103 countries signed the Biological Weapons Convention, which prohibited the development of biological and chemical weapons, as well as their use. Even so, both Russia and Iraq are known to have developed biological weapons since the convention.
The Biological Weapons Convention still allows for research into defences, such as vaccines, against biological weapons. Early in September 2001, the Pentagon announced it was developing a deadly new form of anthrax, for defensive research.
How easy are biological weapons to get and use?
The agents of biological warfare are surprisingly easy to find. Anthrax and botulism are caused by common soil bacteria. The smallpox virus, on the other hand, was eradicated in 1977, the only remaining cultures kept under tight security in Atlanta, Georgia and Koltsovo, Russia. Despite this, experts in biological weapons still consider smallpox a threat.
Some experts say the ease with which biological weapons can be created is their most frightening property. Dr. Leonard Cole, author of The Eleventh Plague told CBC Radio’s Quirks and Quarks in 1998 that anyone with a basic understanding of microbiology and several thousand dollars’ worth of equipment can start a bio-weapons lab.
But Michael Moodie, president of the Chemical and Biological Arms Control Institute, speaking with CBC Morning in September, said that developing biological weapons is not as easy as it is portrayed in the media.
Moodie says the resources of a government and scientific expertise are needed for a viable biological weapons program. Not only would a group have to isolate and culture an agent, but they would have to contain and deliver the agent.
Containing an agent is the most troublesome part of using biological weapons, and one of the most important reasons they haven’t been widely used. The bacteria and viruses don’t discriminate between an ally and a foe, and the so-called boomerang effect, the biological agent affecting those who released it, is a common occurrence.
Delivering a biological agent is difficult, as well. Spreading a disease through the air would most likely involve delivering it in an aerosol cloud. Any change in the weather would make the delivery of that biological aerosol more unpredictable.