Biological Weapons

Anthrax Bacteria
Bacillus anthracis causes anthrax with malignant lesions that turn into eschars. If the contamination is not treated, the illness spreads through the lymphatic system and the septicemia is rapidly deadly. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Biological Weapons

Biological weapons are toxic materials produced from pathogenic organisms (usually microbes) or artificially manufactured toxic substances that are used to intentionally interfere with the biological processes of a host. These substances work to kill or incapacitate the host. Biological weapons may be used to target living organisms including humans, animals, or vegetation. They may also be used to contaminate nonliving substances such as air, water and soil.

Microscopic Weapons

There are a variety of microorganisms that can be used as biological weapons. Agents are commonly chosen because they are highly toxic, easily obtainable and inexpensive to produce, easily transferable from person to person, can be dispersed in aerosol form, or have no known vaccine.

Common microbes used as biological weapons include:

  • Bacteria - these prokaryotic organisms are capable of infecting cells and causing disease. Bacteria cause diseases such as anthrax and botulism.
  • Viruses - are about 1,000 times smaller than bacteria and require a host to replicate. They are responsible for disease including smallpox, flesh-eating disease, Ebloa disease, and Zika disease.
  • Fungi - some of these eukaryotic organisms contain deadly toxins that are harmful to plants, animals, and humans. They cause diseases such as rice blast, wheat stem rust, aspergillosis (caused by inhaling fungal spores), and bovine foot rot.
  • Toxins - poisonous substances that can be extracted from plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi. Toxic substances that can be used as biological weapons include ricin and venom from animals such as snakes and spiders.

Distribution Methods

While it is possible to develop biological weapons from microbes, finding a means of distributing the substances is difficult. One possible way is through aerosols. This can be ineffective as the materials often get clogged when spraying. Biological agents distributed by air may also be destroyed by UV light or rain may wash them away. Another method of distribution may be to attach the toxins to a bomb so that they may be released upon explosion. The problem with this is that the microbes will most likely be destroyed by the explosion as well. Toxins could be used to contaminate food and water supplies. This method would require extremely large amounts of toxin for a large scale attack.

Protective Measures

A number of measures can be taken to protect individuals against biological attacks. Should an aerosol attack occur, removing your clothing and showering are good methods for removing toxins. Biological weapons don't typically adhere to clothing or skin, but can be dangerous should they enter cuts or lesions on the skin. Protective clothing, such as masks and gloves, can provide protection against airborne particles. Other types of protective measures include administering antibiotics and vaccines.

Potential Biological Weapons

Below is a list of a few biological organisms that may potentially be used as biological weapons.

Microbe Natural Environment Target Host Mode of Contraction Diseases/Symptoms
Anthrax Bacillus anthracis Soil Humans, Domestic Animals Open Wounds, Inhalation Pulmonary Anthrax Septicemia, Flu-like symptoms
Clostridium botulinum Soil Humans Contaminated Food or Water, Inhalation
Clostridium perfringens Intestines of humans and other animals, Soil Humans, Domestic Animals Open Wounds Gas gangrene, Severe Abdominal Cramps, Diarrhea
RICIN Protein Toxin Extracted from Castor Bean Plants Humans Contaminated Food or Water, Inhalation, Injection Severe Abdominal Pain, Watery and Bloody Diarrhea, Vomiting, Weakness, Fever, Cough, and Pulmonary Edema
Smallpox Eradicated from Nature, Now Obtained from Laboratory Stockpiles Humans Direct Contact with Bodily Fluids or Contaminated Objects, Inhalation Persistent Fever, Vomiting, Rash on Tongue and in Mouth, Rash and Bumps on Skin
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Your Citation
Bailey, Regina. "Biological Weapons." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Bailey, Regina. (2021, February 16). Biological Weapons. Retrieved from Bailey, Regina. "Biological Weapons." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 6, 2023).