If small poxvirus were released today, the
majority of the world population would be defenceless, and given the virus
30% kill rate, nearly two billion people could die.
Columnist Muhammad Irshad discusses modern
Attempts to kill by disease in times of war are not
new. In an 18th century incident, British officers deliberately gave smallpox-infected
blankets to American Indians at a peace parley during the French and Indian
war. This triggered an epidemic that contributed to the Indian surrender.
However, it was not till the 19th century that it was discovered that
microbes cause infectious disease. This understanding opened new and terrifying
possibilities for weaponizing of disease, and opening up an era of biological
warfare. What is biological warfare? It is deliberate spreading of disease
among humans, animals or plants. Disease occurs when the targeted population
is infected, by living micro-organism. These organisms multiply (some
producing toxins) and in time the symptoms of the disease become evident.
Some biological weapons cause incapacitation, others death. Still others
can be used to attack and destroy the crops.
The first big user of chemical weapons was Germany, which released chlorine
gas at Ypres, Belgium in 1915. Chlorine killed or maimed its victims by
burning the lungs; it also caused panic among soldiers who were totally
unprepared for gas war.
Before the so-called “Great War” ended in 1918, France and
Great Britain had retaliated, and the industrial powers were also using
phosgene gas and mustard gas. For more than 25 years, the USA, former
Soviet Union and many other nations ambitiously pursued the development
of biological weapons. But in 1972, these nations agreed to ban these
weapons. Some countries how-
ever, secretly continued their development and research, amassing stockpiles
of deadly biological agents, along with the means to deliver them.
What led to the official ban on such weapons? According to the thinking
of early 1970’s, biological agents, though highly lethal, are poor
battle weapons. One reason for this is their effect is not immediately
known. It takes time for symptoms to appear. Another reason is that their
effectiveness depends on fluctuations of winds and weather. Further, nations
realized that if one nation used bioweapons against another nation, the
target nation would likely retaliate with its own arsenal of bioweapons
or with nuclear weapons. Finally, many people felt a moral repugnance
against deliberately deploying living organism to disable or kill fellow
None of these reasons are likely to deter people who are seething with
hatred and who are willing to act outside traditional moral standards.
To those bent on indiscriminate killing, biological weapons have enormous
appeal. Bioweapons can be secretly developed and deployed. The identity
of the attacker can be concealed, and if the attacker is known, it is
not easy to retaliate against a terrorist network with cells in many countries.
Moreover, a silent, invisible, slow-acting, and deadly biological attack
can destabilize a population with panic alone. Attack against livestock
or crop can cause food shortage and economic disaster.
Another incentive is the low cost of biological weapons production development.
On analysis compared the cost of using various weapons to kill the unprotected
civilians in an area of one kilometre. The estimated cost using conventional
weapons was put at $2000, nuclear weapons $800, nerve-gas weapons $600
and biological weapons $1.
Some of the common bioweapons available today are as
ANTHRAX: An infectious disease caused by spore-forming
bacterium. Early symptoms of inhaling anthrax may resemble a common cold.
After several days, symptoms progress to severe breathing problems and
shock. This form of anthrax is often fatal. In people exposed to anthrax,
infection can be prevented with antibiotics. Early treatment is vital,
delay reduces the chances of survival. Direct spread of person-to-person
spread of anthrax is extremely unlikely and just may not occur at all.
BOTULISM: A muscle paralyzing disease caused by a toxin
producing bacterium. The symptoms of food borne botulism include double
or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech difficulty swallowing
and dry mouth. Muscles weakness descends through the body from the shoulders
down. Paralysis of breathing muscles can cause death. Botulism is not
spread from one person to another. An antitoxin, if administered early
enough, reduces the severity of the symptoms and the likelihood of death.
Botulism toxin is a prime choice as a bioweapon, not only because it is
one of the most poisonous substances known, but also because it is relatively
easy to produce and transport. In addition, those infected require prolonged
intensive care. Several countries are suspected of developing botulism
toxin as a biological weapon.
PLAGUE: A highly infectious disease caused by a bacterium.
The first signs of a lethal phneumonic plague is fever, headache, weakness
and cough. Septic shock will follow, and without early treatment with
antibiotics, death is almost certain. The disease passes from person to
person through saliva droplets. During the 14th century, within five years
plague killed about 13 million people in China and 20 to 30 million people
SMALLPOX: A highly infectious disease caused by a virus.
Initial symptoms include high fever, fatigue, headache, and backaches.
Later, painful lesions appear that become pus filled. One in three victim
dies. Smallpox was eliminated worldwide in 1977. Routine smallpox vaccination
ended in the middle of 1970’s. The level of immunity, if any, among
people who were vaccinated before then is uncertain. The disease spreads
from person to person via infected saliva droplets; contaminated clothing
or bed lenin may also spread the virus.
Reports in the media say that some terrorist groups have experimented
with biological weapons. Yet, there is a huge difference between experimenting
with biological weapons and launching an effective attack with them. To
be successful, a terrorist organization has to overcome formidable technical
challenges, first, the terrorist has to obtain a sufficient lethal strain
of disease pathogen. Second, he must know how to handle and store the
pathogen correctly and safely. Third, he must know how to produce it in
bulk. Tiny amounts of micro-organism are lethal enough to ravage a field
of crop, a herd of animals, or a city of people, assuming the pathogen
is delivered rightly to the target. However, biological weapons do not
survive well outside the laboratory. In reality only a fraction of biological
agent would reach the target population, so vastly larger amounts would
be needed to launch a catastrophic attack.
There is more. The terrorist must understand how to keep the pathogen
alive and potent during transport from the place where it is kept to the
place where it will be released. Finally, he needs to know how to release
the pathogen effectively. This involves ensuring that pathogen is delivered
to the target in right particle size and in sufficient concentration to
cause mass infection. It took more than ten years for a highly trained
team of US germ-warfare researchers to produce a reliable bioweapon delivery
system. Once a biological agent has been dispersed into the atmospheres,
it is exposed to sunlight and varying temperatures which can cause the
micro-organism to die. Weaponizing an agent, therefore, calls for detailed
knowledge of the behaviour of biological organisms in the air.
Considering the array of the technological hurdles involved, it is not
surprising that few terrorist attack with biological weapons have been
attempted. What is more those attempts produced only few casualties. Recently
anthrax letters killed five people in the United States. These casualties
are much lower than what might possibly have occurred from a small explosive
or even a pistol. Researchers calculate that since 1975, in 96 percent
of the attack worldwide, in which chemical or biological weapons were
used, no more than three people were killed or injured.
Recognizing the difficulties involved in launching a successful biological
attack, the British American Security Information Council stated: “though
governments face a multitude of threats of chemical and biological terrorism,
most analysts believe that the catastrophic scenarios involving the mass
casualties, though possible are highly unlikely to occur”. But while
the probability may be low the consequences of such an attack could be
The point of greatest concern is that though technological difficulties
and history argue against the likelihood of catastrophic biological attacks,
and though in the past the attacks have largely failed, future ones may
succeed. There are concerns, growing number of terrorist seem determined
to kill large number of people. Not only is the technological sophistication
of the terrorist groups growing, but also some terrorist groups have financial
and technical resources that are comparable to those of some governments.
Experts do not seem to worry about nations handing over biological weapons
to terrorist groups. One analyst said: “Governments, however ruthless,
ambitious, and ideological extreme, will be reluctant to pass on unconventional
weapons to terrorist groups over which they cannot have full control;
the governments may be tempted to use such arms themselves in a first
strike, but it is more probable that they would employ them in blackmail
rather than in actual warfare.” What does worry experts is, that
highly trained scientists may be recruited with lucrative offers to work
for terrorist groups.
Advances in biotechnology are also a matter of concern. Scientists already
have the know-how about the existing pathogens to make them extraordinary
lethal yet easier to handle. They can genetically alter harmless micro-organisms
to produce toxins. Organisms can also be manipulated so that they can
escape standard detection methods. Further micro-organisms can be designed
to resist antibiotics, standard vaccines, and therapies. Scientists who
defected from the former Soviet Union, for example, claimed to have developed
a form of plague that was resistant to 16 antibiotics.
Future developments in biotechnology and genetic engineering are expected
to expand the options. Scientists can reshuffle the genetic deck to redesign
or fashion a multitude of biological weapons which are deadlier, hardier
and easier to produce and deliver. They could be tailored so that their
effects could be more easily predicted and controlled. Pathogens might
be controlled to die after a pre-determined number of cell divisions,
in a way that they kill and vanish.
Extraordinary weapons of stealth may be produced in the future. For example,
highly specific weapons could disable the immune system itself, rather
being infected by a specific disease. If such a lethal AID-like virus
surfaces, who is to know, whether the source is the natural mutation or
a genetic manipulation concocted in the laboratory of the enemy? Technological
advances have changed the thinking of military minds. On Naval US office
wrote: “Weapons have only just begun to explore the potential of
biotechnological revolution. It is sobering to realize that far more development
lies ahead than behind.”
Beginning in 1972 more than one hundred nations signed an international
treaty prohibiting the development, production and stockpiling the biological
weapon. This treaty, called Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC),
was the first ever to ban an entire class of weapons. Its flaw was that
it failed to outline a way to determine that nations were obeying the
It is difficult to verify that nations are not developing biological weapons,
since the same technique and knowledge used for peaceful purposes can
also be used to develop biological weapons. This “dual use”
characteristic of biotechnology makes it easy to hide weapons development
in fermentation plants and laboratories that appear to be pursuing legitimate
To resolve the difficulties of verification, delegates of various nations
began to negotiate a binding protocol in 1995. For more than six years,
they deliberated on what concrete measures could be taken to ensure that
nations complied with the BTWC. On December 7, 2001, a three week conference
attended by 144 parties to the 1972 treaty ended in disarray. The problem
was that the United States did not agree to the key proposal about how
to verify compliance with the BTWC. Allowing outsiders to check their
military and industrial facilities, the United Stated asserted, would
expose them to spying.
What is a chemical weapon?
Chemical weapons are super toxic liquid and gaseous substances
that can be dispersed in bombs, rockets, missiles, artillery, mines, grenades,
or spray tanks. The CWC defines chemical weapons as, together or separately,
toxic chemicals and their precursors, munitions and devices, and any equipment
specifically designed for use directly in connection with these items.
The chemicals may be classified into following groups:-
What Are Blister Agents?
Blister agents, or mustard agents as they are usually called,
are chemical weapons agents that get their name due to the wounds caused
by the agents, which resemble blisters or burns. Of course blistering
and burning are not the only damage that mustard agents inflict, mustard
agents also cause severe tissue damage to the eyes, respiratory system,
and internal organs.
What Substances Belong To The Blister Agents?
Several well-known chemical substances that are classified as
blister agents are sulphur mustard agent (bis-2-chloroethylsulphide) A.K.A.
Distilled Mustard (HD), Levinstein (H) and, the Nitrogen Mustards (HN-1,
HN-2 and HN-3), Phosgene Oxime (CX), Lewsite (L), Phenyldichloroarsine
(PD), Ethyldichloroarsine (ED).
What Are Blood Agents?
Blood agents, including cyanogen agents, are agents that are
absorbed into the body through the action of breathing. Once in the body
and blood stream they cause lethal damage by acting on the enzyme called
What Substances Belong To The Blood Agents?
Some of the major substances that belong to the chemical weapons
agents known as the blood agents are hydrogen cyanide (AC) or hydrocyanic
acid (HCN), cyanogen chloride (CK), and arsine (SA).
What Are Choking Agents?
Choking agents are defined as “chemical agents which attack
lung tissue, primarily causing pulmonary oedema”.
What Substances Belong To The Choking Agents?
The chemical agents that are classified as choking agents are
chloropicrin (PS), chlorine (Cl), phosgene (CG), diphosgene (DP).
What Are Nerve Agents?
Nerve agents are highly toxic chemical agents that poison the
nervous system and disrupt bodily functions that are vital to an individual’s
What Substances Belong To The Nerve Agents?
There are five major substances that are classified as nerve
agents. These for nerve agents are broken up into two main groups: the
“G” agents and the “V” agents. The “G”
agents are tabun, soman, sarin, and Cyclohexyl methylphosphonofluridate
(GF). The “V” agent is typified by the agent known as VX.
What are Psychotomimetic Agents?
Psychotomimetic agents are those chemical weapon agents that gain their
name from the fact that they affect the mind.
What are the symptoms of Psychotomimetic Agents?
The substances that are categorized as psychotomimetic agents
are those that, when administered, cause conditions similar to psychotic
disorders or symptoms emanating from the central nervous system. These
effects cause an inability to make decisions and cause an incapacitation
of the individual.
The best examples of chemical warfare are nerve gases,
Sarin. Sarin is a highly toxic nerve gas. It made headlines when members
of a Japanese cult released sarin in a Tokyo subway, killing 12 people.
Sarin can cause death within minutes of exposure. It enters the body through
the eyes and skin. Signs and symptoms vary but include a runny nose, watery
eyes, dimmed vision, drooling, sweating, difficulty in breathing, nausea,
twitching and headache. Sarin kills by paralyzing your muscles used for
Mustard gas. Mustard gas was used in World War I and World War II to sicken
soldiers, and it reportedly was used in the Iran-Iraq war in the mid-1980s.
Mustard gas is yellow to brown in colour. It has a garlic-like smell.
The gas irritates the eyes and causes skin burns and blisters. When inhaled,
it can cause coughing, bronchitis and long-term respiratory problems.
Mustard gas has been linked to later development of lung cancer in survivors.
Exposure to a large amount may be fatal. There’s no antidote to
mustard gas exposure.
Chlorine. Chlorine — a disinfectant used in drinking
water and in swimming pools — in pure form is a greenish-yellow
gas with a pungent odour. Chlorine is corrosive to the eyes and skin.
It can cause blurred vision and burns. Inhaled chlorine can cause labored
breathing and the buildup of fluid in the lungs. High exposure levels
may result in death.
Phosgene. This colourless gas is normally used
manufacturing. If inhaled at high concentrations for long enough,
it causes severe breathing problems and fatal lung congestion. It was
used in World War I as a poison gas. Although, there’s no known
treatment for phosgene exposure and mortality is high, some people exposed
to phosgene do survive.
Hydrogen Cyanide. Hydrogen cyanide is a colourless gas or liquid. Exposure
irritates the eyes, the skin and the respiratory tract. Inhalation causes
confusion, drowsiness and shortness of breath. The substance can affect
the central nervous system and lead to death.
Chemical weapons can be delivered by a wide range of weapons systems,
including ballistic and cruise missiles, combat aircraft-delivered bombs,
artillery shells and land mines. According to the US General Accounting
Office, during the Iran-Iraq war, Iraq delivered mustard gas and tabun
with artillery shells, aerial bombs, missiles, rockets, grenades, and
bursting smoke munitions. The Soviet-made Scud-B and FROG-7 can deliver
warheads bulk-filled with chemical agent and Iraq developed, deployed,
but did not use, chemical warheads on its modified Scud missiles during
the Gulf War. North Korea is also believed to have developed chemical
warheads for its Scud B and Scud C ballistic missiles.
Chemical weapons release toxic gases or liquids that attack the body’s
nerves, blood, skin or lungs. They may produce surface effects such as
tears, blistering, or vomiting, or cause hallucinations or loss of nervous
control. Chemical attacks can contaminate an area for between several
hours and several days, compromising equipment and forcing troops to wear
highly restrictive protective clothing (reducing their efficiency) and
/ or take chemical antidotes whose side effects remain largely unknown.
Chemical attacks cause widespread panic amongst both military and civilian
populations, and their terror effects on civilians are potent. The large
number of potential casualties places burdens on medical facilities and
can overwhelm stretched military resources.
The intimidatory nature of chemical weapons is such that a chemical attack
or the threat of a chemical attack can cause wholesale disruption or paralysis
of civil and economic activity in the affected area. The psychological
effect on a civilian population is likely to cause panic or terror. Chemical
weapons may significantly compromise the operational effectiveness of
military forces by requiring widespread protective measures and decontamination
which drain human and physical resources.
According to a 1991 assessment, India has the technical capability and
industrial base needed to produce precursors and chemical agents, and
it is expected to acquire chemical weapons over the next two decades.
Development is expected to be “paced by the parallel Pakistani programme.”
As required of a party to the chemical weapons treaty, India admitted
this year that it had produced and stockpiled chemical munitions for “defensive
purposes.” Several Indian companies have been implicated in highly
suspicious chemical shipments and are involved in the construction of
chemical plants in states that are developing chemical weapons. The United
States has sanctioned some Indian companies for these activities.
The 1996 USA Defence Department report indicates that Pakistan can produce
chemical agents and munitions with dual-use chemical precursors procured
from foreign sources. Its goal now is to achieve self-sufficiency in producing
precursors. According to a 1993 report, “Weapons Acquisition Strategy
of Pakistan,” Pakistan has artillery projectiles and rockets that
can be made chemical-capable.
Bioterrorism, germ warfare, chemical agents. All are names for a different
type of warfare — one in which the enemy is invisible, microscopic
Experts say the average person’s risk of exposure to biological
and chemical agents is low, although the risk exists. Of course, medical
and scientific advances have also led to the development of drugs and
vaccines. These have been highly successful in the treatment and prevention
of disease. Yet, despite these advances, infectious disease remains a
formidable enemy, killing more than 17 million people per year, about
50,000 each day. It is a chilling irony: while men and women of brilliance
have devoted their lives to the conquest of disease in humans, others
with equal zeal and skill have focused on the conquest of humans by means