Biological Weapon: Most Preferred WMD

15 Nov, 2001    ·   634

Animesh Roul argues out a case for biological weapons being the preferred weapon of mass destruction for non-state actors

Coinciding with the ‘strike against terror’ by the US led coalition, the terrorists have unleashed the germs of terror against the ‘civilized’ world. A biological weapons (BWs) strike by terrorists has become part of the international debate in the US during the last decade. Opinion is divided between the alarmists and those holding the threat to be unrealistic. But within the last twenty days there have been 45 cases of exposure to anthrax (16 confirmed cases of anthrax with 4 deaths); this has started a new trend in recent terrorist activities. They choose to deliver fear and death through the postal services, leading to a ‘mail phobia’ all over the world.



Why did the terrorists choose anthrax spores instead of other conventional or unconventional weapons? What if the terrorists use the more lethal ebola, tularemia or small-pox; or designer viruses instead of anthrax? These questions will haunt us in future.



In biological war, living organisms like bacteria, virus, fungi and rickettsiae, and their natural byproducts (toxins) are used to cause death or disability on a large scale in human beings, animals, and plants. The military and economic advantages in their production and use make biological weapons the weapons of choice for states. They kill people but cause no harm to buildings, factories etc. Their detection and identification is difficult. These weapons can be produced in an antibiotic factory or in a brewery and can be disseminated by letters, packets, crop-dusters or agricultural sprayers. One can contaminate water supplies or pour agents into a ventilator. More importantly, the difficulties of acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities due to technical and fiscal costs has stimulated interest in developing chemical and biological weapons capability by States and non-State actors, comprising terrorists group, religious cults, mafia syndicates and deranged individuals. Also, chemical weapons as compared to BWs require a moderately advanced facility. The availability and accessibility of ingredients for BWs makes them more attractive.



There are many factors that attract a terrorist group towards biological weapons and biological weapons attack. Most important is their toxicity. It is estimated that one ounce of botulinum toxin can kill 60 million people if dispersed properly. Another estimation by the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee is that 50 Kgs of tularemia bacteria, dispersed in aerosol form over a city with a population of 5 million, would cause an estimated 19,000 deaths and a total of 250,000 incapacitating casualties. According to an Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) study, very few tularemia organisms are required to cause the onset of symptoms. Unlike anthrax, however, plague and small-pox pose a different problem. They can spread from person to person and lead to epidemics. Another study noted that four tons of nerve agents and 50 kgs of anthrax spores would cause the same number of causalities in a crowded urban center. Some scientists claimed that the mortality levels from a biological weapons attack could exceed that of a large nuclear explosion. Besides the toxicity factors, their undetectability and capacity to reproduce rapidly make BWs a prime choice.



But the drawbacks are many. They seldom inflict casualties instantly and take time to injure or kill depending upon the incubation period of the pathogen. This process cannot be expedited and the results are often uncertain. More importantly, BWs are double edged weapons and do not discriminate between friends and foes. Looking at these drawbacks experts termed BWs as strategic weapons which can cover a large area if dispersed properly, but they have underestimated the likelihood of a BW attack in the past. The prevailing situation is proving them wrong.



However, one vital question, which has galvanized the defense and scientific communities all over the world, including India , is how to counter a large-scale biological weapons attack? A future attack on India is not remote. Hoax calls and false alarms are taking their toll in India . Till now, one letter has tested positive. If a sudden outbreak occurs, it will definitely cause mass causalities. Ironically, India is not prepared even for a natural outbreak of diseases. The disease currently in the news, in its natural outbreak, has never been contained in India . Statistics shows that there are some 35 cases of human anthrax documented during the last decade and since 1953 some 182 cases of human anthrax have been documented. 



Looking at the possible emerging scenarios, an effective surveillance mechanism for detection and identification, physical protection and decontamination, and medical countermeasures are some of the steps India should undertake. Recently India has started working on a surveillance mechanism under the auspices of National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD). It is vitally important that India maintains effective protective measures for both the armed forces and civilians against potential biological threats.