The Growing Threat of Biological Weapons
The terrorist threat is very real, and it's about to get worse. Scientists should concern themselves before it's too late
On November 25, 1969, under President Nixon, the U.S. announced that
it would unilaterally and unconditionally renounce all biological
weapons. Following executive order, the U.S. program was summarily
terminated, and the Department of Defense was instructed to destroy
all remaining stockpiles of weapons based on biological agents. This
order was extended the following year to cover toxin weapons,
including biologically produced toxins. The existing American
stockpiles of biological weapons were destroyed between May 1971 and
These welcome developments paved the way for the landmark
international treaty of April 10, 1972, the Biological and Toxin
Weapons Convention (or BWC)??which has now been signed by 160
nations and ratified by 143. Among the countries that have signed
and ratified the treaty are the U.S., Great Britain, China, the
Russian Federation, Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea??some of which
figure prominently in reports of actual or suspected bioweapons
programs. Eighteen nations signed the treaty but subsequently failed
to ratify it??including Egypt, Syria and Somalia??and 34 nations
haven't even signed it, including Israel.
The BWC, which went into force in March 1975, took ambitious steps
to ban both biological and chemical weapons, including their
development, production, procurement or stockpiling for any hostile
purpose or use in armed conflict. Unfortunately, the BWC
incorporated no provisions to investigate or follow up on suspicious
activities. It lacked "teeth."
Perhaps the greatest BWC transgression of all occurred between 1972
and 1992, when a truly massive bioweapons effort was under way in
the Soviet Union. Despite endorsing the BWC Treaty, the Soviet Union
carried out ultra-secret bioweapons work right up until it collapsed
in 1990. Some experts contend that a low, but significant, level of
research still exists today. Revelations of the staggering scope of
the Soviet program have only recently come to light, after the
much-publicized defection of Ken Alibek??formerly Colonel Kanatjan
Alibekov??the Deputy Director of Biopreparat, the Soviet
state "pharmaceutical" agency charged with carrying out
Alibek has called Biopreparat "the darkest conspiracy of the
cold war" and tells a chilling tale. During the heyday of the
Soviet program, Alibek supervised as many as 32,000 people (out of
60,000 in the program) at nearly 40 facilities spread throughout the
Soviet Union??effectively a "toxic archipelago." Here the
Soviets worked not only on perfecting "conventional"
biological weapons based on anthrax, glanders and plague, but also
on weaponizing deadly (and highly contagious) viruses such as
smallpox, Marburg and Ebola. In contrast to the American bioweapons
effort, the Soviets considered the best bioweapons agents to be
those for which there was no prevention and no cure.
It was during Biopreparat's heyday, in 1979, that the
"Sverdlovsk incident" occurred. In April and May of that
year, about 100 people and uncounted livestock suddenly died of
anthrax in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), a city of 1.2 million
people. All the victims were located within a narrow band directly
downwind of a secure microbiological facility run by the military.
The Soviet authorities blamed the deaths on contaminated meat
(intestinal anthrax), whereas U.S. agencies attributed the deaths to
inhalation anthrax. The latter explanation would constitute
prima facie evidence for violation of the BWC.
International investigations followed, some involving noted Harvard
biologist Matthew Meselson. His group's reports, although somewhat
critical, initially seemed to lend credence to the Soviet
explanation. However, subsequent findings and detailed witness
accounts left little room for doubt.
Today, it appears that the deaths were precipitated by a shift
worker at the microbiological installation who removed a critical
filter that had clogged. The filter happened to be on the output of
a drying machine used to remove liquid from industrial-scale
cultures of anthrax spores, which were being produced for
bioweapons. An aerosol of spores was released from the unit's
exhaust pipes over a period of several hours before the mistake was
discovered. Sverdlovsk suffered the single largest epidemic of
inhalation anthrax in history. In 1992, former Russian President
Boris Yeltsin formally acknowledged the true origin of the outbreak.
The current economic and political climate in the former Soviet
Union raises the disturbing likelihood that their bioweapons experts
will be forced to seek employment elsewhere, resulting in unwelcome
proliferation. The analogous problem arises for former Soviet
nuclear experts, of course, but bioweapons issues have received
comparatively little attention and scant resources.
The BWC was also clearly violated by Iraq, which established
extensive programs for the development of both chemical and
biological weapons under Saddam Hussein in the early 1980s. Details
of these programs only surfaced in the wake of the Gulf War,
following investigations conducted by the United Nations Special
Commission (UNSCOM) in charge of Iraqi disarmament. As a result of
these investigations, more is known today about the once-secret
bioweapons program in Iraq than that of almost any other nation.
Iraq maintained several distinct facilities, including those at the
Muthanna State Establishment (the principal chemical weapons plant),
Salman Pak (the main biowarfare research center, just south of
Baghdad), the "Single-Cell Protein Production Plant" at Al
Hakam (the main bioweapons production facility, allegedly built to
produce animal feed) and the Foot and Mouth Disease Center at Al
Manal (a site for biowarfare research on viruses).
The Al Hakam facility began mass production of weapons-grade
anthrax in 1989 and eventually generated at least 8,000 liters
(based on declared amounts). This plant was not bombed during the
Gulf War in 1991, and its true role in Iraq's bioweapons program was
not established until 1995, at which point the U.N. ordered its
destruction. Relevant portions of the facilities at Salman Pak and
Al Manal were also destroyed, either by the Iraqis themselves or
under direct UNSCOM supervision.
In the aftermath of the Gulf War, Iraq officially acknowledged that
it had worked with several species of bacterial pathogen??including
Bacillus anthracis, Clostridium botulinum and
Clostridium perfringens (which causes gas
gangrene)??and several viruses??including enterovirus 17 (human
conjunctivitis), rotavirus and camel pox. They also purified
biological toxins, including botulinum toxin, ricin and aflatoxin.
In total, a half million liters of biological agents were grown.