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Biological Weapons and Bio Terrorism: Bio terrorism is real and is here

Paper No.342           17.10.2001



by Sangeeta Debashis

Of the three regimes of weapons of mass destruction- nuclear, chemical and biological, it is the last one that is most potent, accessible and the weakest regime in the global efforts to prohibit and prevent.   With India having a well-developed bio technology infra structure that includes numerous pharmaceutical production facilities, bio-containment laboratories for working with lethal pathogens, it is very necessary for the government to ensure that the biological agents do not fall into wrong hands. 

While the Geneva Protocol of 1925 and the Biological and Toxin weapons convention  (BTWC) 1972 are in place that prohibit research, development and production of offensive biological weapons, the latter does allow defensive research.  The importance and seriousness of bio terrorism has not been understood or felt until the September 11 WTC attacks and occurrence of anthrax cases reported across USA.

In India too, two cases of anthrax  incidence have been reported in the states of Karnataka, and earlier in  Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.  More cases  are likely to be reported in the coming weeks.  The government of India have rightly cautioned the people to be on high alert on the possibility of biological and chemical warfare attacks by terrorists in India following such incidents in USA.

The DRDO Scientists are emphatic that anthrax is endemic to India and it is learnt that the Defence ministry and the Home ministry are getting "rapid response teams " to combat threats of such terrorist attacks. 

Biological weapons pose the greatest threat as these are ideal for bio terrorism for the following reasons.

* have a delayed response thus preventing immediate detection
* the easiest to acquire
* less expensive
* not easily detected
* even a small quantity can be fatal affecting masses
* has  potential for major public health impact
* might cause public panic and social disruption
* require special action for public health preparedness

Biological Agents are grouped under three categories based on the potency and ease of dispersion.  Anthrax comes under the top category for its powerful effect  and easy availability.  One redeeming feature is that it can be cured with antibiotics if detected in time.

Category A:  High-priority agents include organisms that pose a risk to national security because they can be easily disseminated or transmitted person-to-person; cause high mortality, with potential for major public health impact; might cause public panic and social disruption; and require special action for public health preparedness.

Agents include variola major (smallpox); Bacillus anthracis (anthrax); Yersinia pestis (plague); Clostridium botulinum toxin (botulism); Francisella tularensis (tularaemia); filoviruses; Ebola hemorrhagic fever, Marburg hemorrhagic fever, and arenaviruses; Lassa (Lassa fever), Junin (Argentine hemorrhagic fever) and related viruses.

Category B:  The second highest priority agents include those that are moderately easy to disseminate; cause moderate morbidity and low mortality; and require specific enhancements of CDC’s diagnostic capacity and enhanced disease surveillance.

Agents are Coxiella burnetti (Q fever); Brucella species (brucellosis); Burkholderia mallei (glanders); alpha viruses, Venezuelan encephalomyelitis, eastern and western equine encephalomyelitis; ricin toxin from Ricinus communis (castor beans); epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens; and Staphylococcus enterotoxin B.  A subset of List B agents includes pathogens that are food or waterborne.  These pathogens include but are not limited to Salmonella species, Shigella dysenteriae, Escherichia coli O157:H7, Vibrio cholerae, and Cryptosporidium parvum.

Category C:  The third priority agents include emerging pathogens that could be engineered for mass dissemination in the future because of availability; ease of production and dissemination; and potential for high morbidity and mortality and major health impact.

Category C agents include Nipah virus, hantaviruses, tickborne hemorrhagic fever viruses, tickborne encephalitis viruses, yellow fever and multi drug resistant tuberculosis. 

(CDC. Preventing emerging infectious diseases: a strategy for the 21st century. Atlanta, Georgia: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1998)

Bioterrorism:  In the past there have been only two known cases of Bio terrorism which have been extensively researched and analysed The incidents involving the Rajneesh cult and Aum Shinrikyo are well known.  Aum's chief microbiologist died under mysterious circumstances, perhaps felled by one of his own experiments with biological agents.

 History shows that terrorists are prone to copy each other.  Since terrorist groups often strike without warning, we really do not know when and where a terrorist organization might strike after taking inspiration from the previous cases and the recent incidents relating to anthrax. 

CIA director George Tenet on February 2,1999 is said to have made a statement that Bin Laden, was trying to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.  His operatives are trained to conduct such attacks with toxic chemicals or biological toxins and there are indications he is seeking to obtain chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons,

More details of involvement of Islamist terrorists, both Afghan and Arab Afghans under the guidance of Osama bin Laden and supervision of Pakistan have been reported in

The points made in that paper include

* The ISI had established well fortified facilities in Kandahar in Afghanistan for production of chemical, bacteriological and radiological weapon (perhaps) too.  This set-up was established in May 1998 with the acquisition of plant and machinery from Yugoslavia.  This plant arrived via Pakistan with assistance of ISI.

* The first WMD base at Kandahar commenced training of terrorist operatives for biological and chemical weapons from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Egypt and the Gulf states there after.

* The second WMD base is reported to have been established at Zenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Terrorist operative training here was being imparted to first generation European Muslims convertees and second generation emigres from the Muslim world.  Sources claim that chemical and biological weapons materials/samples have been obtained or purchased for relatively small amounts of money.

Russian sources indicate that the network members( bin Laden) have allegedly purchased pedals of anthrax from an East Asian country for $3695 and the lethal viral agent botulinum from a laboratory in the Czech Republic for $7500 a sample.  Representatives of the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines, having close links to Al Qaida are also understood to have obtained anthrax from an Indonesian pharmaceutical company.  Plague and Anthrax viruses have also been bought from arms dealers in Kazakhstan. (

Why Anthrax ?:  The question that would arise- why Anthrax is being chosen for Bio terrorism when so many other equally potent agents are available? The reasons are -It is dangerous, easily available with its low cost of production.  It does not need advanced technology. Knowledge about anthrax relating to source, culturing, transportation and dispersion are widely available.  It is easy to produce in large quantities and easy to weaponise.  The most important feature is that it is extremely stable and can be stored almost indefinitely as a dry powder and the bacteria can multiply even in its dormant stage.

Anthrax  bacteria (Bacillus anthracis) remain in a dormant state as spores and when it   come in contact with skin lesion, or inhaled or in intestine,  are activated as rod shaped bacteria, which cause cutaneous, pulmonary, intestinal anthrax disease.  It mainly affects  the hooved animals but  a human being can also become its victim.

With the advance in technology ( genetic engineered and drug resistant strains of the biological agents) and the increase interest of the terrorists in biological weapons, there is need to pay greater attention to Bio terrorism and steps taken to prevent attacks of biological agents.

The history of biological warfare and the international protocol on preventing biological warfare are given in Appendix I & II.

Appendix I

The history of biological warfare : The table shows the evidence of the use of BW from historical times

Mediaeval Time

Scythian archers

dipped arrow heads in manure and rotting corpses to increase the deadline of weapons


Crimean peninsula, B lack Sea and Italy.

catapults to hurl the plague-infested bodies


Latin America

smallpox by Spanish


war between Russia and Sweden

Russian troops used the cadavers of plague victims


English general, Sir Jeffery Amherst

blankets infected with smallpox to Indians who are helping the French defend Fort Carillon.

1930s & 1940s


Fleas infected with plague in China and Manchuria


Gruinard Island, Scotland

British conduct anthrax tests on sheep.  Today, the uninhabited island is still believed to be infected with anthrax spores.

Nov. 25, 1969


The entire U.S. arsenal is destroyed by 1973, except for seed stocks held for research purposes.


Soviet city of Sverdlovsk

outbreak was caused by an accidental release of anthrax spores from a nearby suspected biological weapons facility


Iran-Iraq war

Iraq was forced to halt its biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programmes.  The U.N. Special Commission (UNSCOM) begins post-war inspections


Rajneesh cult, USA

Salmonella typhimurium in salad bar poisoning


Aum Shinrikyo cult, Japan

anthrax mist spray from the rooftop in Japan killing many.

Appendix II

Protocols that prohibit the use of chemical and biological weapons:

The Geneva Protocol of 1925 prohibits the use of biological or chemical weapons in warfare, but does not ban the research or production of these agents.

All the countries ratified it except USA and Japan.

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) 1972: The treaty prohibits the research, development and production of offensive biological weapons.  The treaty does allow defensive work in the area of biological weapons.  The Soviet Union and the United States both ratify the pact.  The BTWC entered into force in 1975: as of July 1999 it has 143 States Parties and 18 Signatory States. United Nations, List of States Parties to the Convention on the Prohibition of the development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction, BWC/AD HOC GROUP/INF. 20, 20 July 1999.

The Fifth Review Conference in this connection is to be held in November/December 2001.

The Convention for Biological Diversity which opened for signature at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and in January 2000 to the agreement of the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety which includes provisions for advanced informed agreement prior to transborder movement of such genetically-modified organisms.

The Harvard-Sussex Programme initiative to prohibit chemical and biological weapons under international criminal law as a crime against humanity

A Draft Convention to Prohibit Biological and Chemical Weapons under International Criminal Law, CBW Conventions Bulletin, Issue No. 42, December 1998, pp.1-5.

"Rapid advances and diffusion of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and the materials sciences, moreover, will add to the capabilities of our adversaries to engage in biological warfare or bio-terrorism."

In January 2001, the US Department of Defense publication 6 "Proliferation: Threat and Response" in which the then Secretary of Defense said "At least 25 countries now possess -- or are in the process of acquiring and developing capabilities to inflict mass casualties and destruction: nuclear, biological and chemical weapons or the means to deliver them.

Biological weapons have been reflected in the NATO summits -- the Washington Summit communiquéissued on 24 April 1999 by the NATO. NATO, Washington Summit Communiqué, issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. on 24th April 1999. Press Release NAC-S(99)64, 24 April 1999.