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Journal of the Academy of Hospital Administration

Emerging Threat of Biological Weapons asTools of Mass Destruction vis-a-vis our Preparedness

Author(s): B.R. Sharma*, Sandeep Kumar**

Vol. 14, No. 1 (2002-01 - 2002-06)


"Weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) have been defined as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (NBC) employed for the purpose of inflicting massive damage, including the killing of large numbers of civilians1. The terms consolidates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons into one category because, despite differences in their effects and use, they share enormous lethality and symbolism. WMD is an open-ended concept, potentially allowing for the development of other technologies of mass destruction. "Mass Destruction" is a relative term. In World War II, Allied fire bomb attacks on Dresden killed between 130,000 and 200,000 people with 1,400 aircraft sorties over two days2. the atom bomb dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killed about 68,000 people and injured another 76,0003. In a hypothetical scenario, a 1-megaton hydrogen bomb over Detroit might kill 470,000 and injure 630,0004. A single WMD then, can cause damage equivalent to that of hundreds or thousands of conventional high explosive or incendiary weapons.

Going by the above-mentioned definition, biological weapons (BW), along with nuclear weapons (NW) and chemical weapons (CW) are categorized as WMD. Consider the example of tularemia, which is caused by the bacterium Pasteurella tularensis. The average size of this bacterium is about 0.2 by 0.5 microns. One cubic inch could contains lightly more than 780,000,000,000,000 of these bacteria; a baseball-sized container (about 12.5 cubic inches) could contain approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000 bacteria living. If the number of organisms needed to cause infection were ten, there would be enough bacteria to cause disease in a billion people5. Though it is impossible to distribute the bacteria evenly, the example serves to demonstrate clearly that only a small amount is needed to cause mass destruction.

What then is a Biological Weapon? A BW contains living organisms (as well as the means of their delivery) which is intended for use in warfare to cause death or disease and which for its effect depends on the ability to multiply in the person, animal or plant attacked. Some of the biological agents usable as weapons against people are:

Coxiella bumetti Incapacitant (Q-fever)

Francisella Incapacitant tularensis (Tularaemia)

Bacillus anthracis lethal agent (Anthrax)

Yersinia Pestis (Plague)

Vibrio cholera (Cholera)

Small pox

Biological weapons have been used as weapons of war from early times, when centuries ago, soldiers threw plague-infested carcasses over the walls of enemy cities to infect the population within. More recently, claims have been make that biological weapons were used during World War I and World War II. Though most of the claims have not been proved, it is known that during and since World War II, dozens of diseases, primarily those caused by viruses or bacteria, have been studied as possible biological weapons6.

Who would want to possess BW's and why? How does it compare with other WMD?

The answers provide an insight into why the proliferation of BW is today a very real threat to global arms control and why urgent remedial measures are required towards its non-proliferation. When one considers that it is possible to deliver BW via a water supply with research having shown that it is feasible that drinking 100 ml of water from a reservoir of some 5 million litters capacity would cause serious infection or intoxication if as little as half a kilogram of salmonella, 5 kg of botulinum toxin, or 7 kg of staphylococcal enterotoxin has been introduced7, it becomes clear why possessing BW seems such a viable proposition to vested interests that/who are inimical to world peace and stability. In the preceding example, to achieve the same effect with chemicals, 10 tons of potassium cyanide would be required8. Thus, weight-for-weight, BW agents can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than chemical agents and can cause a variety of symptoms. A potential proliferator would find that BW provide a much cheaper route to wmd capability considering that NW are very expensive and that it (BW) is much more lethal than an equal quantity of CW. Almost all the technologies and materials required to produce BW are dual-use in nature and are widely available for commercial purposes. As an example, pharmaceutical production techniques can be adopted to produce biological agents. BW, like CW programs, is much easier to conceal from international inspectors.

The specialized skills required for BW agent production are knowledge of microbiology and the fermentation process but such skills are now becoming increasingly widely available in the scientific and medical industry and open literature well describes new fermentation techniques. In addition, the processes similar to those used for commercial biological products can cultivate biological warfare agents. Seed cultures for producing bacteria can be purchased from commercial vendors (for example, Iraq purchased cultures from the USA) or extracted from natural sources, including animals. Most of the equipment used in cultivating BW agents is also commercially available for producing beer, food products, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, biopesticides and other similar products. Computer-controlled fermenters, centrifugal separators and freeze and spray dryers are included in such equipment. As was the case in Iraq, biological agents can also be grown using laboratory glassware.

Biological Weapons as Option for Terrorists

Biological and toxin weapon agents have been given the appellation of poor man's atomic bomb"9 and there is increasing concern that these weapons might be used by terrorists, including "state-sponsored" terrorism or for sabotage purposes10. The prospect of terrorists acquiring an atom bomb is less than the possibility of their manufacturing or stealing biological weapons.

Compared with nuclear weapons, biological materials are more easily produced (or stolen), more difficult to detect, and usable against any target in which air can circulate. As has been mentioned, they are also less expensive to produce than nuclear weapons, less likely to be detected and potentially more reliable (since they can be field-tested with only a moderate risk to the group concerned). Unlike conventional weapons, they are not detectable by traditional anti-terrorist sensors, are easier to disguise, move and introduce into the target area, and permit the possibility of anonymous attacks.

Terrorists might also be attracted by the prospect of using much smaller, and less costly, amounts of biological agents to inflict a much larger number of casualties (whether fatal or incapacitated) over a greater area.

Alleged Development, Possession and/or Use of Biological Weapons in Recent Years

Iraq's biological and toxin weapon program has demonstrated that the danger of proliferation of these weapon agents is real11. Iraq is subject to the obligations of United Nations Resolution 68712. Apart from Iraq, other countries alleged to be potential possessors of BW agents are China, India, Israel, North Korea, South Africa, Syria; "Developers"-Libya; "Potential Developers"- Iran, Taiwan; "Capable"- Belarus; "Potentially Capable"-Pakistan; "Possibly Capable"-South Korea, of developing such agents13.

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

The "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction," better known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was negotiated from 1969-1971, opened fro signature on April 10, 1972, at London, Moscow and Washington DC, and entered into force on March 26, 1975, with 43 member countries, upon ratification by the three depository states-the USA, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom14. The treaty has 15 Articles and prohibits the development, production, stockpiling or acquisition by other means or retention of microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin in and method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification of prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes, as well as weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict15.

What Should be Done?

It is vital to assess the challenges likely to result in the event of a widespread biological attack. An effective surveillance mechanism for detection and identification, physical protection and decontamination, and medical countermeasures are some of the necessary steps India should undertake. It is, therefore, imperative that the following preventive measures are taken to slow down and eliminate an arms race in BW:

  • By convincing non-BW states that their security interests are bet served by not acquiring it (dissuasion);
  • By attempting to limit a state's ability to obtain BW technologies or devices (denial);
  • By seeking to set limits on or eliminate BW through bilateral or multilateral agreements (in this regard, specifically to create an effective verification regime to strengthen the BWC) and the creation of international norms against proliferation (arms control);
  • By punishing states that pursue acquisition of BW with trade or economic sanctions, publicizing companies and countries that assist in the acquisition of BW, and sharing intelligence (international pressure).
  • India has long been a victim of terrorism, and has taken this threat seriously though to find that it is awfully equipped to fight such an attack. For a country that has not been able to detect and fight periodic epidemic outbreaks, the threat of terrorists using biological weapons is certainly a challenge. Given past records of fighting such outbreaks, our medical infrastructure needs complete greasing. And it has to be done immediately considering the present situation and its hazards to both human population and to environment.
  • We have a well-developed biotechnology infrastructure with a number of pharmaceutical production facilities and bio- containment laboratories. There is also no dearth of qualified scientists to work on this. But till now we don't have a national preparedness agenda against biological weapons. The Defense Research and Development Establishment (drde), Gwalior, which is working towards the development of antibodies against anthrax, cholera, brucellosis, small pox and plague, is the only establishment that has developed chemical and biological protective gears like masks, detectors and suits. However, these protective gears are being supplied to defense personnel only. And it is a question whether a large number of masks or suits can be procured at the time of need.
  • And finally, it is only if all the responsible agencies work in tandem that a future catastrophe can be averted.
  • However, the common person needs to be assured that the threat of biological attack is minimal to avoid any panic and the rumors. The solution is to remember that we can deal with it, unless we overreact16.


  1. Strategic Assessment 1996: Instruments of US Power (Washington DC: National Defense University Press, 1996) p.201.
  2. Science Applications Inc., Evaluations of Collateral Damage (La Jolla, CA, SAIC: 1976) p.131.
  3. Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, eds., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, third edition (Washington DC: US Department of Defence and US Department of Energy,1987) p.544.
  4. US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, The Effects of Nuclear War (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1979) p.37.
  5. Cited in Kathleen C. Bailey, Doomsday Weapons in the Hands of Many: The Arms Control Challenge of the 90s (Ubana: University of Illinois Press, 1991) p.86-87.
  6. Erhard Geissler, A New Generation of Biological Weapons in Biological and Toxin Weapons Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) p. 22-23.
  7. I. Malek, "Biological Weapons", in Steven Rose, ed., CBW: Chemical and Biological Warfare, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p.51.
  8. Cookson and Nottingham, n.10, p.269.
  9. Cited in SIPRI Yearbook 1994 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) p.719.
  10. US Congress, OTA, Technology against Terrorism: Structuring Security OTA-ISC-511 (Washington DC: January 1992).
  11. See J.B. Tucker, "Lessons of Iraq's Biological Warfare programme, "Arms Control, vol.14, No.3, December 1993, p. 229.
  12. Under the terms of this 1991 Persian Gulf War Resolution, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) is mandated to identify and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missile capability and to undertake on going monitoring and verification of Iraq's obligations not to re-acquire such capabilities. For the text of the United Nations Security Council S/RES/687 (1991), April 3, 1991, see SIPRI, SIPRI Yearbook 1992: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (London: Oxford University Press, 1992) appendix 13A, p. 525-30.
  13. Cited in SIPRI Yearbook 1994, n.16, p. 715-716.
  14. The Arms Control Reporter: A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons and Policy,(Massachusetts: IDDS, 1996) p. 701, A1.
  15. SIPRI Yearbook 1996, n.11, [/778-779.
  16. Shahi SK, Ranga Sunil; Gupta Preeti; Bioterrorism; Indian J. Pathol. Microbiol; 2001; 44(4);391-392.

* Reader, Dept.of Forensic Medicine,
Govt. Med. Collage Hospital,
Sector-32, Chandigarh - 160030,
Address for Correspondence:
Dr. B.R. Sharma, # 1156-B, Sector 32-B, Chandigarh - 160 030

** Demonstrator, Dept.of Forensic Medicine,
Govt. Med. Collage Hospital,
Sector-32, Chandigarh - 160030

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