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Appendix C: Biological Agents

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 lethality.

  • 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 natural mutation.
  • 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 animals.


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.

Posted: Apr 03, 2007 08:54 PM
Last Updated: Apr 12, 2007 07:38 AM