What Is A Biological Weapon?

The use of biological agents as weapons in warfare is worse than chemical warfare. The capability of the pathogenic microorganisms to cause debilitating and lethal human diseases makes them potential agents of biological warfare.

Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax disease in cattle and humans, Yersinia pestis, which causes plague, Vibrio cholerae, which is responsible for cholera and Closteridium botulinum, which causes botulism are such microbes generally employed in biological warfare.

The anthrax bacterium is particularly suitable as a biological agent because endospores of Bacillus anthracis can be stored indefinitely and because the disease can be transmitted by aerosols. Similarly plague, although not caused by an endospore-producing bacterium, can be transmitted via the air, and hence Yersinia pestis is a likely candidate as a biological warfare agent. The anthrax spores or plague bacteria can be easily put on scud missile warheads, which could be then used to disseminate the disease causing agents on the enemy's land.

Cholera and diseases caused by the toxins, such as botulism toxin and streptococcal enterotoxin, likewise could have devastating effects on military and civilian population. These agents could be disseminated via food and water.

Biological agents that attack domesticated animals or even basic food plants might be more devastating than those that cause human illness and death.

Although a culture of germs could be delivered in various ways deep inside an enemy's country such germs would have to be of a type already in existence. The damage done would thus depend on existing public health facilities and services.

When developed nations use nuclear and chemical weapons for mass destruction, biological weapons are going the rounds as weapons of the poor countries. This is because a few kilograms of boutilin added to the water supplies around the world could wipe out the entire world population and one can easily make the above quantity through a genetically engineered stain of Clostridium botulinum in one's backyard.

Development of vaccines against anthrax and other devastating diseases could serve the dual purpose of developing disease-preventing medical products and biological agents that could be used for offensive military purposes.

An effective vaccine against a disease can, in some cases, be converted into an offensive biological weapon by simply eliminating a final inactivation step that normally renders the organism harmless. Thus the threat of biological warfare remains very much alive.

Published in The Hindu on April 4, 2002.