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Bioterrorism: How Has It Been Used? What Can It Do? How Prepared Are We?

Bioterrorism: How Has It Been Used? What Can It Do? How Prepared Are We?

UCLA specialist in infectious diseases outlines the history of bioterror and assesses our available responses.

By Jennifer Du

“Bioterror has been used for more than two thousand years,” Dr. Peter Katona, Assistant Professor of Clinical Medicine in Infectious Diseases at UCLA, told an audience in UCLA’s Bunche Hall March 13. “It’s cheap, the recipes are easy to make, and it scares more of your enemy than it injures outright.” Dr. Katona’s talk was sponsored by the Burkle Center for International Relations.

Early Cases of Biological Agents in Wartime

The earliest verified use of biological agents in warfare occurred in the sixth century BC, during a battle in which Assyrians poisoned enemy water supplies with rye ergot, which made the drinkers sick and opened their ranks to Assyrian attack. This same tactic was used by Solon of Athens during a siege of the port city of Cirrha, where skunk cabbage was dumped into its water supply. In 1346, during the outbreak of bubonic plague in Europe, a Tarter army, which was itself infected with the disease, hurled corpses of their dead plague victims over the walls of Kaffa, a seaport on the Crimean coast they were besieging. During the battle of Carolstein in 1422, Lithuanian soldiers catapulted the bodies of their slain soldiers plus 2,000 cartloads of excrement over the castle walls onto ranks of the defenders, where deadly fevers quickly broke out. Russian troops practiced similar methods in 1710 and 1718, by hurling plagued corpses over city walls of Reval during wars with Sweden.

Smallpox: Bioterror of the Conquistadors and the U.S. Cavalry

Smallpox originated in Western Europe. It has served, particularly in the Americas, as an unwitting and later deliberate agent of biological warfare. The disease was brought to America by the Spaniards in the early 16th century. Conquistador Hernando Cortez introduced smallpox to Mexico in 1520, and in two years it killed 3.5 million Aztecs. In wars with the Indians in the early United States it became a common practice to attempt to induce smallpox among the Native Americans. During the Pontiac rebellion in 1763, the British army provided Delaware Native Americans with blankets and handkerchiefs taken from smallpox hospitals. This “gift giving” of disease-ridden blankets was a common practice by the American military after independence from Britain, particularly in the late nineteenth century. Today smallpox is extinct in the world, thanks to heroic efforts of the World Health Organization. Samples of the virus, however, remain in laboratories of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta and in Moscow. A major concern of health officials is that terrorists may try to capitalize on the fact that smallpox vaccinations ceased in 1971 to reintroduce the dread disease to populations that have lost their immunities.

More recent incidents of bioterrorism include the use of sarin gas in the Tokyo subways by the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult in March 1995, killing 12 people and exposing some 5,500. Of course, most recently, there has been the anthrax mailings to U.S. political and media figures following the terrorist attacks of September 11.

The Secret of Bioterrorism’s Popularity

Why has bioterrorism been so popular throughout history? Katona attributes it to its ease of use. According to Katona, biological agents are very inexpensive to produce, and today biological “recipes” are also literally at everyone’s fingertips on internet. Terrorists also know that biological agents not only affect targets physically and are difficult to defend against, but they can potentially inflict mass hysteria on the society exposed.

Katona also pointed out some drawbacks of using biological weapons in warfare. First, the biological agents are highly unpredictable. The results are not guaranteed, like physical weapons such as machine guns, tanks, and missiles, but are weapons of great uncertainty. Second, they depend on the cooperation of temperatures and weather to successfully infect the enemy. These are variables that can never be regulated and are inherently uncertain. Also, the production of biological weapons requires experienced scientists and advanced technology.

So, how concerned should Americans be about the dangers of bioterrorism? “As of now, we possess few large-scale defense mechanisms against a massive bioterrorism attack and are quite vulnerable. Over 11,000 cargo ships pass through U.S. borders every day and only 2% of those ships are inspected.” However, reports from the Department of Defense have stated that a large assault against the United States is highly unlikely. Many people fear an aerosol attack, in which a biological agent will be sprayed over densely populated cities. But according the Defense Department, Katona said, this kind of attack is quite unrealistic and very difficult and expensive to execute. The Department warns that we should be more concerned with attacks such as contamination of food. Such a case occurred in 1984 when the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult contaminated salad bars in 10 restaurants in The Dalles, Ore., with Salmonella Typhimurium. 700 people were poisoned but no deaths occurred.

The most dangerous agents, Katona told the audience, were not those such as anthrax that have to be touched or inhaled, but the ones that are infectious from person to person. Principally today these are smallpox, pneumonic plague, and hemorrhagic fever.

Defending against Biological Agents

Katona was hopeful that effects from the use of bioterrorism can be minimized. International law and international agencies have banned the use of biological agents in warfare, calling them weapons of cruelty. The signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925 made the ban official. The Biological Weapons Convention in 1972 proposed a resolution to eradicate all biological agents. This was ratified during the followup 1975 Convention, although the United States has refused to sign. Also, efforts have been taken to reduce the stockpiles of chemical weapons in both Russia and the United States made during the cold war. Katona did say that closing off access to potential releases of biological agents posed hard choices between civil liberties and security. He referred to the current perception of this problem as an either/or choice as “Heisenbergism,” from Werner Heisenberg’s postulate that you cannot measure both the speed and position of a subatomic particle at the same time.

The first line of defense in the event of future assaults would be rapid quarantine of affected areas. This would be followed by sterilization of exposed fomites (a term for any inanimate object that can carry disease-causing organisms, including such things as your kitchen sink, or the change in your pocket). If the agent used was communicable, this would be followed by a mass vaccination program.

Burkle Center for International Relations