|Although Iraq's biological weapons (BW) program is under the microscope of those seeking to halt BW proliferation, the Wall Street Journal wrote
that this "diverts Western attention away from the broader problems of
chemical and biological weapons worldwide-and especially in Russia".|
During the Cold War a consensus existed that the Soviet Union was using
recombinant DNA technology for military purposes. It was also attempting the
recombination of the venom-producing genes from cobras and scorpions (and even
bees) with the DNA of normally harmless bacteria. Such an organism would
infect the body and surreptitiously produce paralytic cobra toxin. If
delivered as a respirable aerosol, such an engineered agent could infect tens
of thousands of people.
Former Soviet scientists have described a jointly-operated gene warfare program
between the military and the Soviet Academy of Sciences which enjoyed the full
support of the Kremlin leadership. The United States, meanwhile, had
unilaterally stopped military research into offensive biological and toxin
warfare capability in 1972.
Some observers are worried that work in this field is continuing. However,
Prof. Matthew Meselson, professor of biochemistry at Harvard University
and former chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, has spent a great
deal of time investigating what the Soviets, and now the Russians, are doing in
the area of biological warfare. He maintains that Moscow's biological research
programs are now minimal, pointing to the fact that at every one of the known
BW installations, recent satellite imaging has not revealed any ultraviolet
However, biological issues continue to feature in the media. UK and US troops
were inoculated against anthrax during their recent deployment in the Persian
Gulf, and the UK government issued an all-ports alert following intelligence
reports of an attempted smuggling of an anthrax toxin into the country
concealed in duty-free merchandise.
Iraq's research into anthrax, botulinum toxin, gas gangrene bacteria, and
various chemical poisons such as VX gas, is regarded as the greatest threat.
Mustard gas and nerve agents were used in combat against Iran during the
1980-88 Gulf War, and nerve agents were deployed against a Kurdish village in
1988 with casualty figures in the thousands. Moreover, a little-publicized CIA
report from 1996 - Intelligence Related to Gulf War Illness - said
that: "There are no indications that any biological agent was destroyed by
Understanding the potential of biological warfare remains something of a gray
area. Eric Croddy in his book Chemical and Biological Warfare, An Annotated
Bibliography makes a persuasive case that it is actually quite difficult
to kill huge numbers of people using chemical or biological warfare (CBW)
agents. "In fact," says Croddy, "it is a considerable challenge to use
microbes and biological toxins as weapons of any scale."
Most bacteria and protein toxins are fragile. They are thermolabile (unstable
when heated), and are sensitive to acidic solutions and ultraviolet radiation
from the sun. Not only must a biological agent 'jump' a number of
environmental hurdles, it must also face the antibody/antigen response once
inside human tissue.
"The Russians, as with ourselves in the West," says Croddy, "discovered a long
time ago that the human body is remarkably resilient. The largest organ, the
skin, is a selectively permeable shield against common bacteria, rickettsia
and parasites that are ubiquitous in our atmosphere. Even if ingested in food
or water, most microbes that would otherwise be remarkably virulent, usually
die - their protein toxins denatured by acidic and enzymic action in the gut.
And if they find their way in through a cut in the skin, likely as not almost
all bacteria will be engulfed by the phagocytic guardians of our immune
Overcoming these defensive mechanisms requires unique features: because the
most 'hospitable' and vulnerable sites of entry are the lungs, any biological
warfare microbes have to be delivered in some form of respirable aerosol to
cause mass casualties. Consequently, microencapsulation is a possible future
technology for delivery of some of the more fragile viruses.
Only the most hardy microbes survive the necessary processing in today's
biological weapons, and one pathogen - anthrax - fits most criteria as an
effective BW. In addition to its ability to form an aerosol, this bacterium on
infection attacks the body's own defenses. Significantly, Russia has
experimented with an anthrax strain that shows resistance to antibiotic
Found in domestic livestock, anthrax (Bacillus anthracis) is most commonly
encountered among sheep. Shearing of these animals allows the bacteria to
become airborne and is the causative agent in woolsorter's disease (a form of
As a spore-forming bacterium, anthrax can survive for decades in soil. This
makes it ideal for freeze-drying into an exceptionally fine powder. Once
ensconced in the lungs, the capsule surface of the spore resists the body's
immunological response. One of three toxins released by the anthrax bacteria
further reduces the body's ability to react protectively.
For decades, scientists believed that anthrax killed its victims by forming
'logjams' in the blood stream. Research has since determined that Anthrax
toxin III (in combination with other factors) is arguably the most intrusive
culprit. Multiplying in the lungs and then in the bloodstream, anthrax
reproduces in ever greater numbers by geometric progression. Anecdotal reports
of patients succumbing suddenly to anthrax following two or three days of
symptoms are consistent with the release of lethal toxin.
Further investigations into anthrax reveal more unsettling discoveries, not
least that some strains appear to be resistant to penicillin. This presents
another dilemma: in the event of a terrorist anthrax attack, sufficient
antibiotics for large population concentrations might not be immediately
available. It takes time to manufacture antibiotics. If the threat is real,
tens of millions of people would need to be immediately inoculated. Then
there is the question of time and whether a therapeutic course could be given
The potential for genetic engineering of this bacterium also presents some
horrific consequences: a bacteriological weapon, already well-suited to
killing thousands of people within days, could be modified (as Russia has
done) to make it resistant to antibiotics. It is, as one observer noted, the
perfect weapon and there is every indication that Iraq possesses it in
abundance. During the 1990-91 Gulf War, Iraq had large quantities of anthrax,
with the intention of dispersing the bacteria over Coalition lines and across
An outbreak of anthrax in humans occurred in 1979 at Sverdlovsk (now
Ekaterinburg) in the former Soviet Union. The original release of spores came
from a biological warfare research laboratory in the southern suburbs of the
city of 1.2 million people on the eastern slopes of the Urals. It was
freeze-dried and the amount released into the atmosphere, according to
Meselson, was anything from 4mg to 1g. (It is impossible to see 4mg with the
The resultant epidemic - 96 people were infected and 64 died - provoked
intense international debate. The Russians never revealed how much anthrax was
involved, and it took years to get to the point where they were prepared even
to admit that it was an accident.
Speculation continues as to whether the accidental release resulted from
activities prohibited by the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972.
Subsequent research has shown that under such circumstances, the fatality rate
- without aggressive medical treatment - would have been more than 95 per
Anthrax particles are most effective when they are within a certain micron
range; the accepted wisdom indicates anything between 1-10m. Extensive
research that has been carried out at the United States Army Medical Research
Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID), Fort Detrick, Maryland, has
indicated that between 8,000 and 10,000 spores constitute an LD50 (lethal dose
that will kill half of those infected) for humans. If anthrax is disseminated
in sufficiently fine particles, it quickly gets into the bloodstream through
Significantly, capsulating bacteria like Bacillus anthracis tend to defeat the
body's immune system in two ways: first they resist being engulfed by white
blood cells; second, they produce toxins that actually vitiate the human
immune response. Then the bacteria start multiplying at a rapid rate,
producing a most lethal toxin. Fortunately this symptom can be treated if
caught early enough.
However, if the strain is the latest Russian development and proves to be
impervious to antibiotics, any such treatment is rendered ineffective. The
progression in such a case is simple; as the bacteria multiply, the level of
toxin dramatically increases. Death can be sudden, following a few days of
incubation. At Sverdlovsk the first victim was dead in days, and the last case
died six weeks after infection.
The consensus is that anyone exposed to at least 20 anthrax spores per cubic
liter of air for about 30min will probably receive close to an LD50 dose. If
enough infected air is inhaled in that time, sufficient spores will enter the
victim's lungs to make for an infectious dose.
Iraq carried out research in this field in laboratories at Al Hakam and Salman
Pak, both on the outskirts of Baghdad. Although Coalition bombing in 1991
destroyed much of this, intelligence sources indicate that a significant
measure of this BW program has survived intact. United Nations inspectors with
the UN Special Commission (UNSCOM) are now searching for these assets. There
is no doubt that the weapons exist - the problem is finding them.
Those countries with advanced research BW programs - such as Iraq, Iran,
Libya, North Korea, and Syria - have anthrax occurring naturally, usually in
such places as stockyards, wool shearing depots and the like. Governments are
consequently able to seek scientific aid regarding treatment from humanitarian
organizations as part of their ongoing research, because anthrax is a viable
threat to livestock.
In 1986, before the breakdown of relations between Iraq and the US, the latter
country supplied seed cultures of anthrax from the American Type Culture
Collection, a laboratory in Rockville, Maryland. Spore samples were ordered by
telephone and were sent, as a matter of course, by normal mail. Iraq and other
renegade states working on BWs were then able to ask the relevant bodies for
anthrax, claiming it was needed for research on antibiotic regimens.
This supply channel has since been blocked. According to the US Department of
Defense (DoD), this is the most common method of creating a national BW
program; as such, anthrax will continue to be the prime experimental pathogen,
which is why it is regarded as such a serious threat.
Similarly, botulinum toxin - another 'pathogen of choice' for some developing
countries - presents a different type of threat. In humans the toxin
interrupts conduction between our peripheral nervous system and muscle
receptors. Botox, as it is commonly called, is prescribed by doctors to treat
Strabismus dystonius and other neurological disorders. It is also in everyday
cosmetic use (to counter the onset of facial or other bodily wrinkles); botox
makes the muscles flaccid or paralyzes them and they take months to
If this occurred on a larger scale in the human body - where the majority of
functions are determined by the way muscles behave - it would be fatal. It
takes only an extremely small dose of botulinum to kill by respiratory
paralysis. One such example is that of a woman who was poisoned by botulinum
from eating just half of a green bean (which became infected during the
canning process); there are not many microbes in half a green bean, but it
contained sufficient toxin for it to kill. In the case of botulinism, the LD50
is about 0.001g/kg of body weight.
It is difficult to establish which of the two - anthrax or botulinum - is the
more toxic. Certainly, botulinum acts considerably faster than anthrax which
takes some days to get into the system before a septicaemic reaction is
manifested. It can be preceded by flu-like symptoms. Although scientists are
aware of the end result, not enough is known about botulinum to describe the
sequence of events in detail.
For all this, neither anthrax nor botulinum has been tested on any scale in
modern warfare. The Japanese Aum Shinrikyo cult made an unsuccessful attempt
to rig a fan in a Tokyo building in order to spray anthrax spores over the
city, but errors were made either in production or delivery. Militarily, the
consensus is that these biological and toxin agents, while devastating to
those who are unprepared, will not make or break wars. These pathogens remain
unproven entities, but that does not make them any less potent as killers.
Aum Shinrikyo had access to a considerable amount of money (estimated at
between US$300 million and US$1 billion) with which it hired chemists and
biologists. Members of the cult were also reported to have arrived in Kikwit
in the former Zare (now the Republic of Congo) at the time of an outbreak of
the Ebola epidemic, to obtain samples for BW purposes.
Dr Jane Alexander, of the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency
(DARPA), has studied the Japanese sect. She discovered that Aum had also
undertaken research into the 0157:H7 variant of E.coli, which produces a
toxin. Although E.coli is difficult to manipulate as an aerosol for BW use,
such bugs can cause serious problems (in Osaka, Japan, 10,000 people were
infected with a deviant form of E.coli 0157:H7).
What Aum was working on entailed the insertion of botulinum toxin inside
E.coli bacteria in an attempt to manufacture a lethal carrier of this toxin.
It is likely that Aum was investigating plasmids (small rings of DNA material
that carry genetic information) to implant material into bacteria as well. In
fact, pharmaceutical companies use E.coli plasmids to produce Vitamin C which
is cheaper than trying to synthesize it - for these purposes E.coli is
relatively innocuous and exists as a normal and healthy bacteria in human
In this way, says Croddy, the processing of E.coli as a weapon is an attempt
to 'sneak' an E.coli strain into the body, which does not (or cannot) react
immediately. This virulent new strain would then start to multiply. (It is much
more serious if a toxin-generating gene has been inserted into a bacterial
The ramifications of such genetic engineering are endless: in the case of the
E.coli 0157:H7 strain, a toxin would be produced that can result in serious
problems in children and the elderly, including renal failure. This strain of
E-coli was responsible for an outbreak of food poisoning in Scotland during
1996, when more than a dozen people died and hundreds were taken ill.
Such effects can be taken one step further by inserting other genes to produce
more virulent toxins, which is what the former Soviet Union was researching.
Western intelligence agencies are aware that some work into biological warfare
programs continued in the Commonwealth of Independent States until at least
1992 (the Sverdlovsk-17 BW plant was shut down in the same year).
The UK and US have monitored these developments carefully. They are in the
process of determining the long-term implications (see IDR 4/1998, pp21-24),
largely to ensure that the West has adequate defenses should the deployment of
germ weapons become a reality.
One of the issues raised - particularly in the light of revelations about
Iraq's BW program - is whether the US will ever again acquire a real offensive
CBW capability. The consensus is 'absolutely not'. There are, however,
numerous institutions - the military (USAMRIID in particular), universities,
and so on - that spend a great deal of money in establishing how and which
microbial pathogens might be manipulated, in order to anticipate what
potentially hostile states or subversive groups might be working on.
DARPA is making a serious efforts to look closely at E.coli in terms of
biological defense. Here, too, Russia has been working to transfer segments of
genetic material from one bacterium to another, which is relevant in terms of
antibiotic resistance. The upshot is whether or not a new germ manufactured by
a hostile power can be effectively countered.
This has caused scientists to speculate how E.coli 0157:H7 originally came
into existence, and how it became a toxin- generating microbe. There are some
scientists who argue that the strain emerged naturally and mutated from
bacteria exchanging genetic information. According to others, it could have
been bio-engineered in a laboratory and spread from there. Most scientific
favor rests with the first argument. In terms of research into E.coli,
Croddy's view is that: "All the major European powers are tinkering about with
it defensively. Personally, I would say that USAMRIID is further ahead than
just about anybody else."
In the area of biological warfare defense, money - and a lot of it - is being
spent. In the US, DARPA is co-ordinating most of the purse strings, channeling
much of the money through the Biological Defense Program Office. Significant
funds are also being diverted to educational institutions such as Johns
Hopkins University and others in the academic research field.
Research into a small mass-spectrometer that will fit into a standard-sized
briefcase which could conceivably be used under battlefield conditions is also
under way. This will be capable of identifying in real-time if a friendly
force is deployed in a 'hot' (contaminated) zone. Although this development is
better suited for the characterization of chemical agents, it is hoped that
highly accurate readings of the primary eight BW threats will also be
"Then," says Croddy, "if you detect any sort of biological presence, you may
not know immediately what it is and whether it is a potential threat. But you
will have a pretty good idea. You will probably want to 'suit-up' anyway."
The DoD concluded recently that the biological warfare threat was one area in
which the United States has found itself to be the most vulnerable. This was
said repeatedly at a symposium on the subject held in Atlanta, Georgia, in
March. More than 2,000 delegates from 70 countries were present, many of them
military officers. This indicates the significant level of interest in a
menace which could, if ever released from the confines of a laboratory, herald
a global epidemic.