The Continuing Threat from Weapons
of Mass Destruction
Appendix C: Biological Agents
March 27, 1996
Many developing countries see biological
weapons--like chemical weapons--as having a twofold utility: as a "poor
man's atomic bomb," intended to deter attacks from stronger,
unconventionally armed neighbors; and as a relatively cheap force multiplier
that can help compensate for shortcomings in conventional arsenals.
Because much of the same biotechnology equipment employed by modern
pharmaceutical programs or laboratories associated with modern hospitals can be
used to foster a biological weapons program, identification of an offensive biological warfare program can be extremely difficult. Most
equipment used in BW-related programs has legitimate applications, providing
potential proliferators with the ability to conceal BW activity within
legitimate research and development and industrial programs. The manufacture of
vaccines for human or veterinary use can camouflage the production of large
quantities of BW agents.
A number of experts speculate that terrorists might acquire biological
agents more easily than chemical agents. And both BW and CW would be far easier
to develop than nuclear weapons.
Types of BW Agents
BW agents differ widely in infectiousness, length of incubation period, and
- Bacteria are
single-cell organisms that are the causative agents of anthrax,
brucellosis, tularemia, plague, and numerous other diseases. They vary
considerably in infectivity and lethality.
- Rickettsiae are
microorganisms that resemble bacteria in form and structure but differ in
that they are intracellular parasites that can reproduce inside animal
cells. Examples of rickettsial diseases that might be used for BW include
typhus, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and Q fever.
- Viruses are
intracellular parasites that are about 100 times smaller than bacteria.
They can infect humans, crops, or domestic animals. An example of a virus
that might be used for BW is Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis. VEE virus
causes a highly infectious disease that incapacitates but rarely kills. A
virusís strength can be altered to increase its efficiency. A particularly
powerful strain of an endemic pathogen could simply be blamed on a chance
- Some Fungi can cause
severe disease in humans, such as coccidioidmycosis (valley fever) and
histoplasmosis. Moreover, fungal diseases are devastating to plants and
might be used to destroy staple crops and cause widespread hunger and
economic hardship. Examples of plant fungal pathogens include rice blast,
cereal rust, and potato blight.
- A toxin is a
poisonous substance made by a living system, or a synthetic analogue of a
naturally occurring poison. An enormous variety of toxins are manufactured
by bacteria, fungi, marine organisms, plants, insects, spiders, and other
Production of BW Agents
BW agents are relatively easy and inexpensive to produce for any nation that
has a modestly sophisticated pharmaceutical or fermentation industry.
Mass-production methods for growing cultures are widely used in the commercial
production of yogurt, yeast, beer, antibiotics, and vaccines. Almost all
equipment needed for the production of pathogens and toxins is dual-use and
available on the international market, increasing the potential for concealing
illicit activities under the cover of legitimate production.
Methods of Delivery
BW agents are nonvolatile solids that would be disseminated either as a
liquid slurry or a dry powder of freeze-dried organisms or toxin. Possible
delivery systems range in complexity and effectiveness from an agricultural
sprayer mounted on a truck to a specialized cluster warhead carried on a
ballistic missile. The key to producing large-scale respiratory infections is
to generate an aerosol or stable cloud of suspended microscopic droplets, each
containing from one to thousands of bacterial or virus particles. Fogs and
smokes are examples of visible aerosols.
Biological warfare (BW) can be
considered the military use of living organisms or associated materials that
are intended to cause disability, disease, or death in humans, animals, or
crops--for hostile purposes. Agents include pathogenic micro-organisms, toxins
and bioactive substances, which may be weaponized, using both military and
civilian-type delivery systems.