What is Bioterrorism?

Definitions of Bioterrorism, History of Bioterrorism and More

What is Bioterrorism? The history of bioterrorism goes back as far as human warfare, in which there have always been efforts to use germs and disease as weapons. In the late 20th century, violent non-state actors began seeking to acquire or develop biological agents to use in attacks on civilians. There are very few of these groups, and almost no recorded bioterrorism attacks. Nevertheless, the reported risk has led the U.S. government to expend immense resources for biodefense in the early part of the 21st century.

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What is Bioterrorism?

U.S. Government

Bioterrorism refers to the intentional release of toxic biological agents to harm and terrorize civilians, in the name of a political or other cause.The U.S. Center for Disease Control has classified the viruses, bacteria and toxins that could be used in an attack. Category A Biological Diseases are those most likely to do the most damage. They include:

  • Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis)
  • Botulism (Clostridium botulinum toxin)
  • The Plague (Yersinia pestis)
  • Smallpox (Variola major)
  • Tularemia (Francisella tularensis)
  • Hemorrahagic fever, due to Ebola Virus or Marburg Virus

Read more: Medical Research Makes Progress toward Botulinum Toxin antidote

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Premodern Biological Warfare

The use of biological agents in warfare isn't new. Pre-modern armies tried to use naturally occurring diseases to their advantage.

In 1346, the Tartar (or Tatar) army tried to turn the Plague to their advantage in their siege of the port city of Kaffa, which was then a part of Genoa. Dying from plague themselves, army members attached bodies and heads of the deceased to catapults, then landed them--and the 'black death' they carried--inside the walled city of their victims. A plague epidemic ensued and the city surrendered to the Mongol forces.

In the French Indian Wars of the late 18th century, English general Sir Jeffrey Amherst reportedly distributed smallpox-infected blankets to Native American forces (who had sided with the French).

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Twentieth Century Biological Warfare

States, not terrorists, have been the biggest developers of biological warfare programs. In the twentieth century, Japan, Germany, the (former) Soviet Union, Iraq, the United States and Great Britain all had biological warfare development plans.

There have been a few confirmed bioterrorism attacks. In 1984, the Rajneesh cult in the United States made hundreds ill with food poisoning when they put Salmonella typhimorium in an Oregon salad bar. In 1993, the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo sprayed anthrax from a rooftop.

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Bioterrorism Treaties

In 1972, the United Nations proffered the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bateriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (usually called the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, BTWC). By November 2001, there were 162 signatories and 144 of these had ratified the convention.

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Origins of Current Concern about Bioterrorism

Douglas C. Lovelace, Jr., the Director of the Strategic Studies Institute, suggests four reasons bioterrorism has become a concern in the last generation:

The first, beginning around 1990 ...was the official U.S. Government suggestion that proliferation of offensive BW programs...was an increasing trend. The second was the discovery ...that the USSR...had built a massive covert biological weapons program... The third was the corroboration by the United Nations Special Commission in 1995 that Iraq ... had stockpiled large quantities of agents ... The last was the discovery, also in 1995, that the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo group ...had spent 4 years attempting ...to produce ...two pathogenic biological agents. (December 2005)