Policies of International Cooperation
EJB Electronic Journal of Biotechnology ISSN: 0717-3458
© 1999 by Universidad Católica de Valparaíso -- Chile

Biological warfare, bioterrorism, biodefence and the biological and toxin weapons convention

Edgar J. DaSilva
Director, Division of Life Sciences UNESCO, France
E-Mail: e.dasilva@unesco.org

Keywords: Biodefence, Biosensors, Bioterrorism, Biowarfare, Robobiology, and Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)

BIP Article

The attraction of bioweapons in war, and for use in terroristic attacks is attributed to easy access to a wide range of disease-producing biological agents, to their low production costs, to their non-detection by routine security systems , and to their easy transportation from one place to another. In counteraction of such threats, and in securing the culture and defence of peace, the need for leadership and example in devising preventive and protective strategies has been emphasised through international consultation and co-operation. Adherence to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, sustained by use of monitoring and verification protocols, is i an important and necessary step in eliminating the threats of biowarfare and bioterrorism.


The attraction for bioweapons in war, and for use in terroristic attacks is attributed to their low production costs, The easy access to a wide range of disease-producing biological agents, their non-detection by routine security systems, and their easy transportation from one location to another are other attractive features (Atlas, 1998). Their properties of invisibility and virtual weightlessness render detection and verification procedures ineffectual and make non-proliferation of such weapons an impossibility. Current concerns regarding the use of bioweapons result from their production for use in the 1991 Gulf War; and from the increasing number of countries that are engaged in the proliferation of such weapons i.e. from about four in the mid-1970s to about 17 today (Cole, 1997).

Biological/Chemical Warfare Characteristics

Biological and chemical warfare share several common features. A rather comprehensive study of the characteristics of chemical and biological weapons, the types of agents, their acquisition and delivery has been made (Purver, 1995). Formulae and recipes for fabricating such types of weapons, which to date, have been used in bio- and chemoterroristic attacks against small groups of individuals, result from increasing acdaemic proficiency in biology, chemistry, engineering and genetic manipulations. A general state of helplessness resulting from a total lack of preparedness and absence of decontaminating strategies further complicates the issue. As a rule, microbiologists have pioneered research in the development of a bioarmoury comprised of powerful antibiotics, antisera, toxoids and vaccines to neutralise and eliminate a wide range of diseases. However, despite the use of biological agents in military campaigns, it is only since the mid-1980s that the attention of the military intelligence has been attracted by the spectacular breakthroughs in the life sciences (Wright, 1985). Military interest, in harnessing genetic engineering and DNA recombinant technology for updating and devisi lethal bioweapons is spurred on by the easy availability of funding, even in times of economic regression, for contractual research leading to the development of (i) vaccines against a variety of bacteria and viruses identified in core control and warning lists of biological agents used in biowarfare, (ii) rapid detection, identification and neutralization of biological and chemical warfare agents, (iii) development of genetically-modified organisms, (iv) development of bioweapons with either incapacitating or lethal characteristics, (v) development of antianimal agents e.g. rabbit calcivirus disease (RCD) to curb overpopulation growth of rabbits in Australia and New Zealand, and (vi) development of antiplant contagious agents of rust, smut, etc.


Genetic engineering, and information are inceasingly open to misuse in the development and improvement of infective agents as bioweapons. Such misuse could be envisaged in the development of antibiotic-resistant microorganisms, and in the enhanced invasiveness and pathogenicity of commensals. Resistance to potent antibiotics constitutes a weak point in the bio-based arsenal designed to protect urban and rural populations against lethal bioweapons. An attack with bioweapons using antibiotic-resistant strains could initiate the occurrence and spread of communicable diseases, such as anthrax and plague, on an endemic or epidemic scale. The institution of food insecurity is a subtle form of economic and surrogate biological warfare. Human health, food security and the management of the environment are continuously being threatened, regionally and globally, by dwindling reserves of water (Serageldin,1999). Deliberate contamination of food with herbicide, pesticide or heavy metal residues, and use of land for crops for production of luxurious ornamental plants and cut flowers, are other aspects of food insecurity. The deliberate release of pathogenic organisms, that kill cash crops and destroy the reserves of an enemy, constitutes an awesome weapon of biological warfare and bioterrorism (Rogers et al, 1999).Anticrop warfare, involving biological agents and herbicides, results in debilitating famine, malnutrition, decimation of agriculture-based economies, and food insecurity.. Defoliants in the Vietnam war have been widely used as agents of anticrop warfare. Cash crops that have been targeted in anticrop warfare are sweet potatoes, soybeans, sugar beets, cotton, wheat, and rice (Whitby and Rogers, 1997).


Public awareness of the growing threat of bioterrorism in the USA is gathering momentum. Development of national preparedness and an emergency response, focus in essence, on the co-ordination of on-site treatment of the incapacitated and wounded, on-spot decontamination of the affected environment, detection of the type and character of the biological agent, and its immediate isolation and neutralization. The rise of bioterrorism as a priority item on the agendas of international concern and co-operation is now being reflected in the establishment of verification procedures to guard against contravention of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, and in efforts in institutionalizing a desirable and much needed state of preparedness. International workshops and seminars focus on the peaceful use of biotechnology and the Convention on Biological Weapons. In addition several other measures are in force to monitor the development and use of bioweapons (Pearson, 1998).

A recent survey of over 1400 research institutions, universities, medical colleges, and health science centres in the USA focused on research activities, production capabilities and containment facilities that may necessitate compliance declarations with the protocols of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention. Compliance declarations and regimes are of direct consequence with institutions that are engaged in routine and genetically-engineered research with specialized groups of microbial pathogens and toxins; and that do contract research for government and industry with biological agents that could serve as potential triggers of biological warfare and bioterrorism (Weller et al, 1999). The role of industry in designing apt verification measures is a crucial element in the strengthening of the Convention, The practise of such investigations emphasizes the growing need for the development of a verification protocol that deters and discourages violation of the Convention.

Control, Monitoring and Reporting Systems

The development of a response strategy and technology in monitoring the control of weapons is at the core of a state of preparedness in the USA (New York Academy of Sciences, 1998). Current anti-bioterrorism measures involve the devising of unconventional effective countermeasures to combat misuse of pathogens encountered either naturally or in a genetically-modified state. Guidelines and recommendations have been formulated for use by public health administrators and policy-makers, medical and para-clinical practitioners, and technology designers and engineers in developing civilian preparedness for terrorist attack (Institute of Medicine, 1999). Areas covered deal with rapid detection of biological and chemical agents, pre-incident analysis of the targeted area, protective clothing, and use of vaccines and pharmaceuticals in treatment and decontamination of mass casualties.

Biodetection systems functioning as early warning/alert systems involve the detection of biological particle densities by laser eyes and electronic noses with incorporated alarms. Emphasis is less on the identity of the biological agent, and more on the early warning aspect which constitutes an effective arm in counteracting the threat of bioterrorism in daily and routine peace time environments (Schutz et al, 1999).


Biological warfare can be used with impunity under the camouflage of natural outbreaks of disease to decimate human populations, and to destroy livestock and crops of economic significance. New threats from weapons of mass destruction continue to emerge as a result of the availability of technology and capacity to produce, world-wide, such weapons for use in terrorism and organized crime (Department of Defense, 1996). Novel and accessible technologies give rise to proliferation of such weapons that have implications for regional and global security and stability. In counteraction of such threats, and in securing the defence of peace, the need for leadership and example in devising preventive and protective responses has been emphasized through the need for training of civilian and non-civilian personnel, and their engagement in international co-operation. These responses emphasize the need for the reduction and elimination of bioterrorism threats through consultation, monitoring and verification procedures; and deterrence, through the constant availability and maintenance of a conventional law and order force that is well-versed in counterproliferation controls and preparedness protocols (American Society for Microbiology, 1999). Adherence to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention, reinforced by confidence-building measure is indeed, an important and necessary step in reducing and eliminating the threats of biological warfare and bioterrorism (Tucker,1999)


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