Biological warfare

A generation ago, biological weapons were called germ-warfare weapons. Biological weapons are very different from chemical weapons. A chemical weapon is a poison that kills upon contact with the skin. Bioweapons are microorganisms, bacteria or viruses, that invade the body, multiply inside it, and destroy it. Bioweapons can be used as strategic weapons. That is, they are incredibly powerful and dangerous.

They can kill huge numbers of people if they are used properly, and their effects are not limited to one place or a small target. Chemical weapons, on the other hand, can be used only tactically. It is virtually impossible to put enough of a chemical in the air in a high enough concentration to wipe out a large number of people over a large territory. And chemicals are not alive and can not spread through an infectious process.

There are two basic types of biological weapons, those that are contagious and those that are not. Anthrax is not contagious: people don't spread it among themselves; you cannot catch anthrax from someone who is dying of it. Smallpox is contagious. It spreads rapidly, magnifying itself, causing mortality and chaos on a large scale.

The most powerful bioweapons are dry powders formed of tiny particles, biodusts,that are designed to lodge in the human lung. The particles are amber or pink. They have a strong tendency to fly apart from one another, so that if you throw them in the air they disperse like a crowd, leaving a stadium. As they disperse, they become invisible to the human eye, normally within five seconds after the release. You can't see a bioweapon, you can't smell it, you can't taste it, and you don't know it was there until days later, when you start to cough and bleed, and by that time you may be spreading it around.

The particles of a bioweapon are exceedingly small, about one to five microns in diameter. You could imagine the size this way: around fifty to a hundred bio-particles lined up in a row would span the thickness of a human air. The particles are light and fluffy, and don't fall to earth. You can imagine motes of dust dancing in a shaft of sunlight. Dust motes are mostly bits of hair and fuzz. They are much larger than weaponized bio-particles. If a dust mote were as thick as a log, then a weaponized bio-particle would resemble a child's marble.

The tiny size of a weaponized bio-particle allows it to be sucked into the deepest sacs of the lung, where it sticks to the membrane, and enters the bloodstream, and begins to replicate. A bioweapon can kill you with just one particle in the lung. If the weapon is contagious in human-to-human transmission, you will kill a lot of other people too. So much death emergent from one particle!

Given the right weather conditions, a bioweapon will drift in the air for up to a hundred miles. A hundred kilograms of anthrax spores would, in optimal atmospheric conditions, kill up to three million people in any of the densely populated metropolitan areas of the United States.

Sunlight kills a bioweapon. Bacteria and viruses are generally vulnerable to sunlight. That is, a bioweapon biodegrades in sunlight. It has a "half-life", like nuclear radiation. This is known as the decay time of the bioweapon. Anthrax has a long decay time-it has a tough spore. Tularemia has a decay time of only a few minutes in sunlight. Therefore, tularemia should always be released at night. Ultraviolet light kills them quickly. Heavy rain or snow, wind currents, and humidity impede their effectiveness.

While there are any number of organisms that bioterrorists could use as weapons, and we will analyze several of them in this study, smallpox and anthrax are the big two that are capable of causing disease and death sufficient to cripple a city, even a country.

There are some that maintain that discussing the subject will cause needless alarm. There are some that maintain that denouncing the potential capability of Cuba in the development of bioweapons is not prudent. But existing defenses against these weapons are dangerously inadequate, and when, not if, biological terror strikes, as I am convinced it will, public ignorance will only heighten the disaster.

In 1972, the United States signed the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Biological and Toxins Weapons and on Their Destruction, commonly known as the Biological Weapons Convention. Soviet diplomats helped to write much of the language of the treaty, and the Soviet Union became one of the three depository states for the treaty. The other two were the United States and Great Britain. It was believed that the resources of the Intelligence community and the vigilance and concern of the scientific community would serve to sound the alert to any violations of the treaty.

But the belief turned out to be only in the years following the treaty. For there was no way to verify whether or not violations were taking place, and the truth is that much progress was made in the development and engineering of bioweapons in various countries around the world. This was not noticed for a long time. It was an invisible history.

It is therefore critical that the international community continue to pursue the establishment of adequate verification measures that will increase the transparency of research programs in Cuba and elsewhere.

Bioweapons: terrorism's next wave

Terrorists and outlaw countries are extending the world's fields of battle from physical space to bioweapons and cyberspace, the latter to be analyzed also in this study. They are known as high-tech weapons. The United States government has proposed $1.5 billion to prepare the nation against attacks via computers or viruses.

A high-level U.S. government commission concluded on July, 1999, that the United States is ill prepared to combat the growing threat of biological weapons proliferation. The Committee was headed by former director of the Central Intelligence Agency John Deutch. The problem is made very complex by the growth of technology that can be used both commercially and in weapons.

Most counter-terrorism experts view biological weapons as posing the greatest threat. A 1998 CIA publication notes that biological weapons have an advantage over chemical or nuclear weapons in that there are no reliable detection devices currently available nor are there any recognizable signals of the human senses. The report also points out that such a terrorist attack might be mistakenly attributed to natural causes.

The U.S intelligence suspects 14 nations of having biological weapons programs-including Cuba-and some countries designated as sponsoring terrorism are suspected of either having a program or being able to start one using civilian bio-technology assets.

A bacteriological weapon is grown in a fermenter tank, and it gives off a yeasty smell, somewhat like beer, or sometimes a meaty smell, like a meat broth. Virus weapons are not grown in fermenter tanks, because a virus does not cause fermentation when it grows. A virus converts a population of living cells into more viruses. What happens is called amplification of the virus. The machine that amplifies a virus is called a bioreactor.

A bioreactor is a rather small tank with a complicated interior. The tank contains a warm liquid bath that is saturated with living cells. Nothing ferments inside the tank, and no gases are left off, so there is no odor. The cells are infected with a virus that is replicating. The cells leak virus particles, and the bioreactor becomes charged with them.

A virus particle is a tiny nugget of protein that surrounds a core of genetic material, which consists of strands of DNA or RNA, ribbon-like molecules. These molecules carry the master software code that directs the activities of life. Viruses use their own software code to take over a cell and direct the cell's own machinery to make more virus particles, until the cell explodes and releases hundreds or thousands of copies of the virus.

The ease of deployment of such weapons is of particular concern. In one scenario constructed for the Pentagon, 20 pounds of anthrax sprayed from a truck driven down New York City's Broadway would result in up to 1.8 million deaths.

Under the White House proposal, 120 of the nation's largest cities would receive training in some of the unique aspects of response to terrorists events involving biological agents. They would also receive equipment sets required to continue the training and access to information and assistance related to biological materials.

A lone terrorist creates a designer microbe deadly enough to annihilate Miami-Dade county. After it's unleashed into the air, the virus will jump, silently, from person to person, infecting thousands of unknowing victims. Air travelers will spread the microbe across the nation-and other nations- and millions will die within weeks. It hasn't happened yet, but it could, public-health experts advise. How do we successfully contain and combat the emerging threat of bioterrorism?

Bioterrorism presents unique challenges. The effects of chemical warfare are often obvious immediately after an attack, allowing public-health officials time to mobilize and clean up the area within hours or days. But a biological attack might not be evident until weeks after the initial infection. And by then, the silent microbes could have spread to thousands, killings most in their wake.

Well-trained physicians might not recognize the signs of infection by a bioweapon in a patient, especially if it is a mixed combination. Physicians should be warned that the effects of a bioweapon on the human body may be very different from natural disease caused by the same organism.

To prepare, federal agencies have scrambled to set up new counter-terrorism strike forces. Behind all this is the very real fear that the world has entered a new stage in terrorism. Even crude weapons can easily cause mass disruption. The attack could range from the poisoning of an individual to sophisticated mass murder.

For example, ricin, is a lethal toxin extracted from the castor bean plant. This toxin was used by Soviet agents, using an umbrella-gun, to murder a Bulgarian in London, in 1978. Product tamperers, too, are increasingly turning to biological agents. There are E. coli, cholera, salmonella, HIV. The greater challenge without any doubt will come from those with broader grievances, from terrorists steeped in political hatred.

Bioweapons are divided, in general, into strategic and operational types. Strategic biological agents are mostly lethal, such as small pox, anthrax, and plague. Operational agents are mostly incapacitating, such as tularemia, glanders, Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis (VEE), dengue, yellow fever. Both types, however, cause extensive disruption, huge numbers of casualties.

Release of small pox into the general population would be one of the most serious threats to mankind, said Dr.D.A.Henderson, director of the new Johns Hopkins Center for Civilian Bio-Defense Studies. Unfortunately, today that is a very real scenario. Some of the reasons bioterrorists prefer smallpox are its high fatality rates-it kills some 35 percent of its victims- and its long incubation periods-up to 14 days. While the victims do not experience symptoms during these two weeks, they can infect others. The smallpox virus is known as Variola major.

About two weeks after infection, a victim may develop high fever, malaise, headache and backache. A rash then develops, spreading all over the body. There is no treatment and it is easily spread from person to person, Dr. Henderson said. No one in the United States has been vaccinated during the past 25 years. Even those immunized before that time are unlikely to still be protected. Smallpox is very contagious. One case of smallpox can give rise to twenty new cases. Each of those cases can start twenty more.

Intelligence reports and other evidence have led the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-CDC- officials to conclude that North Korea, and "other potential adversaries" may have harvested smallpox for use in weapons, threatening to revive a plague for which vaccines are no longer produced.

CDC in Atlanta has placed smallpox at the top of their list of potential biological agents of mass destruction. U. S. intelligence officials cite Russian intelligence reports that concluded North Korea and other former Soviet client countries-Cuba- were conducting research into using smallpox in weapons.

CDC has begun to review its policy on the virus. Currently, agency officials said, U.S. inoculation stores would be sufficient to protect a mere 5 million to 7 million people. The idea of producing new stores of the vaccine is under consideration.

The resurgence of concern about smallpox began with a Russian intelligence report ordered by former intelligence chief Yevgeny Primakov, now Russia's Prime Minister. The 1993 report, "A New Challenge After the Cold war: proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction", stated that some countries were doing research into smallpox as a biological weapon.

Every country with a large biological industry, which had a history of relations with the enormous Soviet biological weapon program, has the potential to produce smallpox virus, and other classical biological agents, such as anthrax, plague, and yellow fever. Cuba, with a long history of research on yellow fever and other tropical diseases, certainly has the capacity to produce such agents.

Unlike small pox, anthrax is not spread from person to person, as previously mentioned, but it is just as deadly. Given appropriate weather conditions, 50 kilograms of anthrax released from an aircraft along a 2 kilometer line could create a lethal cloud of anthrax spores that would extend beyond 20 kilometers downwind.

The aerosol cloud would be colorless, odorless, and invisible. They would infect people indoors as those on the street. An analysis by the Office of Technology Assessment of the U.S. Congress estimated that 150,000 to 3 million deaths could occur following the release of 100 kilograms of aerosolized anthrax over Washington D.C.

Again, a long incubation period is a potential problem. Exposure to an aerosol of anthrax spores could cause symptoms as soon as two days after exposure. However, illness could also develop as late as eight weeks later. Further, early symptoms of anthrax resemble a flu. Hence, persons are therefore often misdiagnosed. Untreated, 90 percent of people die, most within three days. Antibiotics can significantly reduce the risk of death, but only if given within the first few days of symptoms.

Biological warfare experts are convinced that certain countries have developed, through genetic engineering, forms of anthrax that can overcome the vaccine now in existence. Any country with a modern microbiology laboratory-Cuba, for example- could perform the required manipulations to enhance the lethality of anthrax and create several strains of it. Anthrax is a biological weapon of choice because the bacillus forms a sturdy, long-lasting spore.

The No. 1 threat that needs attention is the continued disintegration of Russia as a civil society. The first defector to emerge from the Soviet Union was Vladimir Pasechnik, a microbiologist from Biopreparat, who arrived in Great Britain in 1989. Pasechnik frightened British intelligence, and later C.I.A., when he told them that his work as director of the Institute of Ultrapure Biopreparations, in Leningrad, had involved offensive-biowarfare research into Yersinia pestis.

Yersinia pestis is a pestilential microbe that causes plague, or Black Death, an airborne contagious bacterial organism, that wiped out a third of the population of Europe around 1348. The Soviet Union had developed a genetically engineered strain of plague that was resistant to antibiotics.

Black Death can travel through the air in a cough from person to person, and a strain of multi-drug-resistant. Black Death might be able to amplify itself through a human population in ever-widening chains of infection. Other threats come from China, North Korea, Iran, Iraq, and Cuba.

We may not realize until too late that we have become the victims of a biological attack. A small amount of Marburg, Ebola, smallpox, released in an airport, subway, crowded shopping or stadium, could produce hundred of thousands of victims. The time required before symptoms are observed in a biological attack, according to First Responders Chem-Bio Handbook: A Practical Manual for First responders, 1998, is dependent upon the actual agent used.

Casualties can present in minutes, hours, days, and even weeks after an attack. It is easier to make a biological weapon than to create an effective system of biological defense. It is easier to develop a biological weapon than to create a vaccine. At least eighty different types of bacteria, viruses, fungi can be weaponized.

No one can seem to agree on the best approach to bio-defense. In a simulated attack staged in New York city in 1998, nearly all of the members of an emergency unit dispatched to the scene would have died because they were insufficiently protected. In September 1998, Clinton and Yeltsin agreed on a program of accelerated negotiations to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention.

An ad hoc group of countries have met several times since 1998 to develop guidelines for mandatory inspections in countries suspected of developing biological weapons. Other measures discussed include requiring countries to open their biological facilities to regular visits from international inspectors and setting up a unit to investigate suspicious outbreaks of disease.

There is no technical solution to the problem of biological weapons. It needs an ethical, human, and moral solution if it is going to happen at all. Terrorism is the uncontrolled part of the problem. It is not what kind of sophisticated delivery system a country might have. The best delivery system for bioweapons would be a suitcase left in a crowded urban location. A vial of freeze-dried powder takes up less space than a pack of cigarettes.

In 1992, the Institute of Oceanographic Studies of Cuba, and the Academy of Science conducted an intriguing experiment. It consisted in throwing to the ocean, from different points in Cuba's north coast, sealed bottles with a small note inside. The note requested from those who found them to reply to the address indicated. The note claimed it was a study of ocean contamination.

Obviously, the real objective was to find the best delivery place in the coast to reach U.S. in an effective way. The results found that the north central coast of Cuba was the best site. This could be another form of delivery. Bioweapons are terrorism's next wave.

Bioweapons: most important agents

As mentioned above, at least eighty different types of bacteria, viruses, fungi, toxins, can be weaponized. We will describe next the most important lethal agents.

Marburg and Ebola viruses

Marburg and Ebola viruses both cause severe hemorrhagic fevers. Marburg virus was first recognized in laboratory workers in Marburg, Germany, and Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1967. These workers had been exposed to tissues and blood from African green monkeys imported from Uganda.

There were 25 primary cases and six secondary cases in the outbreak. Ebola virus first emerged in two major disease outbreaks which occurred almost simultaneously in Zaire and Sudan in 1976. Over 500 cases were reported, with mortality rate of 80%.

Marburg, and both subtypes of Ebola (Ebola-Zaire and Ebola-Sudan) viruses are members of a new family of negative-stranded RNA viruses, the Filoviridae. The filoviruses are similar in morphology, density, and electrophoresis profile. Originally classified as rhabdoviruses, they appear to be more closely related to paramyviruses on the basis of recent genome sequence data.

Filovirus particles are morphologically similar to rhabdovirus particles but longer. By electron microscopy, virions are plemorphic, appearing as long filamentous, sometimes branched forms, or "U" shaped, "b" shaped, or circular forms.

Clinical symptoms are similar with Marburg and Ebola virus infection. Following incubation periods of 4-16 days, onset is sudden, marked by fever, chills, headache, anorexia and myalgia. These signs are followed by nausea, vomiting, sore throat, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

Pharyngeal and conjunctival infections are usual. Most cases develop severe hemorrhagic manifestations. Bleeding is often from multiple sites. Death occurs between days 7 and 16, usually from shock with or without severe blood loss. The most striking lesions are found in liver, spleen and kidney. Transmission occurs by contaminated blood samples, sexual contact, and more important, respiratory spread of infection.

Experimental work on Marburg and Ebola viruses has been greatly impeded in the past by the high pathogenicity of these agents. New DNA technology will help to understand better the molecular structure of these viruses. Marburg virus has been successfully weaponized, and there is no known vaccine for it.

Ebola virus was more difficult to weaponized. However, by 1991 it was believed several countries had been able to develop an Ebola weapon. Cuba is one of these countries. There is not known vaccine against Ebola either.


Tularemia is caused by the bacteria Francisella tularensis. It can enter the human body through the skin, mouth, eyes, or nose. As a bioweapon, the bacteria would be delivered as a cloud to the target population, making entry through the airways into the lungs the most common route, although ingestion and entry through skin wounds is also possible.

The disease may appear as ulcer or lesion at the place of entry and then progress to the lymph nodes and through the blood to other organs, including the lungs if the lungs are not already infested. The fatality rate is about 15% if not treated.

Tularemia can remain alive for weeks in water and soil. It is highly infectious in that a very small number of bacteria can cause disease. After 2-10 days, symptoms, such as fever, chills, fatigue, chest discomfort, dry cough, weight loss would appear. Pneumonia may also be present.

Once a person is exposed to tularemia, antibiotics can be given effectively whether or not symptoms have appeared. Streptomycin is the drug of choice. Vaccine is available. Human to human spread of the disease is rare. It could be used to overwhelm medical resources in a large city, leaving hospitals unable to cope with a flood of patients in need of constant treatment.

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