Silent Weapons

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 bio-weapons.

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 humans.
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 follows:
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 in Europe.
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 horrendous.
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 rules.
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 civilian activities.
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:-

Blistering Agents
Blood Agents
Choking Agents
Nerve Agents
Psychotomimetic Agents

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 cytochrome-oxidase.

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 survival.

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, such as:
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 breathing.
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 in chemical
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 and deadly.
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 of disease.