In modern times, during World War I, Germany developed biological weapons using anthrax, glanders, cholera, and wheat fungus. During World War II both sides developed biological weapons but never used them for fear of retaliation. Both sides in the Cold War researched biological agents until a United Nations treaty(2), which went into effect in 1975, forbade the development, production, and stockpiling of such weapons. Hence, research by countries such as the United States into such weapons has focused on defense against human-caused plagues.
Of course, treaties are meaningless to rogue states and terrorist groups. The possession of biological weapons by Iraq was of some concern to military planners during both Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Operation Enduring Freedom in 2003. However, Saddam Hussein declined to use his stockpile for fear of retaliation. North Korea is said to have developed a biological weapons stockpile.
Biological Weapons of Mass Destruction
Biological weapons are obviously the go-to weapon of mass destruction in the hands of terrorist groups such as ISIS and Al Qaeda, However, the spectre of a terrorist-caused mass casualty attack by a biological weapon has thus far failed to become reality.
One famous attempt was undertaken by a Japanese group called Aum Shinrikyo that attempted to use an aerosol-delivered form of anthrax from rooftops in Tokyo in 1994. During the current war on terror, terrorists have attempted to deliver anthrax and ricin through the mail.
Could a biological weapon be used to create so many casualties world-wide that society itself collapses? In theory it is possible to develop a fatal bioengineered weapon the incubation of which is slow enough that people traveling across the planet can spread the disease but fatal enough that it can kill most people it infects.
What sort of possible devil’s brew exists(3) that keeps security experts awake at night?
1. Weaponized smallpox would be based on what was once one of the deadliest diseases to afflict the human race before Edward Jenner created the first vaccine in the 18th century. Smallpox has been eradicated so thoroughly that it only exists in laboratories, and hardly anyone is vaccinated against it any longer. If someone found a way to spread the disease it would be a race against time to create new vaccines and get people inoculated before they became infected.
2. Ebola, a disease that originated in sub-Saharan Africa, would be another possibility. The last major outbreak that took place between 2013 and 2016 killed over 10,000 people and left 17,000 survivors. No known cure exists for the disease, but intensive treatment in a hospital setting can help a patient survive. How that would work during a world-wide outbreak caused by a terrorist attack is a matter of speculation.
3. Botulinum toxin, which causes a type of food poisoning, is a favorite among countries and groups that stockpile biological weapons. A person who is infected as the result of an airborne weapon would have only a short time to get his or her hands on an antitoxin before the disease advanced too far for treatment.
4. Biological weapons such as rice blast, which attack crops, would have the potential for causing massive casualties, not directly, but by causing mass starvation. Rinderpest could be used to kill livestock.
5. A new bioengineered virus, one that combines the properties of – say ebola and smallpox – would have the most potential to bring about the end of civilization. The Soviet Union researched just such a weapon in the 1980s. Unlike other diseases for which defenses exist, such a weapon would be hard to stop before too many people got infected. An enemy could develop both the weapon and the vaccine and thus blackmail a target country to either surrender or face extinction.