Anthrax Biological Weapons

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Chapter 4
Anthrax Biological Weapons

Biological weapons are sometimes called weapons of mass destruction (WMD) because they can kill huge numbers of people with a single use. For example, a 1993 study conducted by the U.S. Congressional Office of Technology Assessment found that spraying 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of dried anthrax spores over Washington, D.C., would cause between 1 million and 3 million deaths.

Biological warfare began centuries ago, when humans first realized that illnesses could be spread by diseased people. Some of the earliest biological weapons were diseased corpses, flung into an opponent's wells or camps to sicken enemy populations. In 1346, for example, Tatars attacked Caffa, an Italian trading post in the Crimea, on the Black Sea. During the siege the Tatar army was struck by bubonic plague, which killed thousands of soldiers. The Tatars turned their dead troops into weapons, catapulting disease-ridden corpses over the walls of Caffa. According to an Italian observer, Gabriel de Mussis, "[The Tatars], fatigued by such a plague and pestiferous disease, stupefied and amazed, observing themselves dying without hope of health, ordered cadavers placed on their hurling machines and thrown into the city of Caffa, so that by means of these intolerable passengers the defenders died widely."25 The residents of Caffa, being massacred by the plague, fled back to Italy—taking the disease with them. From Italy, bubonic plague spread across Europe, causing an epidemic of the "Black Death" that wiped out a third of the continent's population. Plague-ridden corpses were used again in 1710, when Russian soldiers employed them against Swedish troops.

Over the course of time other microorganisms have also been used as bioweapons. The British, for example, used smallpox against Native Americans in the 1760s. Over two centuries later, between 1978 and 1980, anthrax bioweapons were used to devastating effect in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) during that country's civil war. Records indicate that there was a huge number of animal victims as well as almost eleven thousand cases of human anthrax, with 182 human deaths. Experts believe Rhodesia's white ruling regime, in an attempt to defeat the Rhodesian natives' push for independence, spread anthrax spores over tribal lands.

By the 1900s biological weapons had become highly diverse and sophisticated. In 1925 Winston Churchill, who later became prime minister of England, wrote about "pestilences methodically prepared and deliberately launched upon man and beast.… Blight to destroy crops, anthrax to slay horses and cattle, plague to poison not armies only but whole districts—such are the lines along which military science is remorselessly advancing."26

Experts say that a catastrophic biological weapon, sometimes called "a poor man's atom bomb," can be made from readily available laboratory equipment and the anthrax spores extracted from a pailful of dirt. Thus, U.S. officials fear that rogue countries and terrorist groups might produce arsenals of these arms. When asked how seriously he took the risk of a bioterrorist attack, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency James Woolsey said, "Quite seriously. The problem is that it is comparatively easy to do compared with other acts of terrorism using weapons of mass destruction."27

Many biological agents, including organisms that cause smallpox, cholera, typhoid, typhus, yellow fever, and botulism, may be used as biological weapons. However, Woolsey indicates that he was especially apprehensive about terrorists using anthrax weapons because "a lot of the information about it is out there and public.… It's extremely lethal. It's been around a long time and a lot of people know a good deal about it."28

Access to Anthrax

Cultures (stocks) of deadly organisms such as anthrax are relatively easy to obtain. The American Type Culture Collection in Maryland, for instance, supplies samples of microorganisms to laboratories for medical research, vaccine production, and other lawful purposes. Moreover, there are about fifteen hundred other germ banks in the world that provide similar services. On occasion, however, germ banks have inadvertently sent microorganisms to rogue nations and terrorist groups. In the 1980s, for example, the American Type Culture Collection sold Bacillus anthracis bacteria to Iraq, before that country's biological weapons program became public knowledge.

Because of such mishaps, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and federal health officials invoked new rules in 1995 to control access to deadly microorganisms. The new regulations require U.S. laboratories studying lethal microbes to register with federal health administrators and be open to inspections. These rules, however, apply only to facilities based in the United States. Germ banks in other countries are governed by different rules and might still unintentionally provide virulent microbes to outlaw organizations. Moreover, criminal dealers with access to germs, or germ banks in countries with little regulation, can sell microbes to anyone. In fact, Osama bin Laden, head of the al-Qaeda terrorist organization, bought anthrax cultures from labs in Asia, according to a former follower.

Even without access to germ banks, though, anthrax spores can be obtained relatively easily from contaminated soil. James Woolsey notes: "Anthrax can be cultured from what you can get from a lot of cow pastures in the world. Making it is a little bit harder than running a micro-brewery attached to a restaurant and making beer, but it's not radically harder.… It is nothing like the difficulty, for example, of obtaining fissionable material and building even a primitive nuclear weapon."29

The First Anthrax Weapons

Research on Bacillus anthracis weapons began almost one hundred years ago. The first recorded use of anthrax bioweapons occurred during World War I (1914–1918). Germany sent saboteurs to a number of nations—including Argentina, Norway, Romania, Spain, and the United States—to infect sheep, cattle, horses, mules, and Norwegian reindeer with anthrax and glanders (another bacterial disease). The animals were either injected with microbes or fed sugar laced with germs. Germany's aim was to deprive the Allies of these animals, meant to be used for food and transportation. The German bioweapons did not seriously damage the Allied war effort, however, and the Allies went on to win the war.

The Geneva Conference

The use of biological and chemical weapons during World War I horrified the public and resulted in the Geneva Conference of 1925. This led to the "Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological [biological] Methods of Warfare." The treaty allowed research into biological weapons but prohibited their use—unless someone else used them first. France, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union signed the protocol, but the United States and Japan did not. In any case, no provisions were made to enforce the treaty, and most countries ignored it. Hence, before and during World War II, in the 1930s and 1940s, many nations continued to develop biological weapons.

Japan's Biological Weapons

Japan had an extensive biowarfare research program and built a huge compound, called Manchukuo Unit 731, to manufacture biological weapons and experiment on humans. The research complex was located in Manchuria, a region of northeast China that Japan had conquered. There, Japanese scientists had access to a large supply of Chinese and Soviet prisoners of war as well as to a number of American and British detainees. Thousands of prisoners in Manchukuo Unit 731 were deliberately infected with diseases—including cholera, plague, typhoid, dysentery, and anthrax—and studied by Japanese doctors.

During war crimes trials after World War II, Major Karasawa Tomio, chief of the Japanese biological warfare unit, testified about experiments done in Manchukuo Unit 731. Tomio admitted that he

personally was present on two occasions … when the action of bacteria was tested on human beings under field conditions.… The first time … toward the end of 1943 … some ten persons were tied to stakes … and a fragmentation bomb was exploded by electric current fifty meters away from them. A number of the experimentees were injured by bomb splinters and simultaneously … infected with anthrax.30

Other human subjects were secretly fed anthrax-contaminated food and liquids.

Japan's bioweapons were not confined to Manchukuo Unit 731. During World War II (1939–1945) the Japanese Imperial Army spread deadly diseases to at least eleven Chinese cities. Various means were used to distribute anthrax bacteria and other germs, including contaminating food and water supplies and dropping germ-laden feathers and cotton wadding from aircraft. Japan also used Bacillus anthracis bombs to spread anthrax. Shrapnel from the bombs infected people with the disease. Sheldon Harris, a historian at California State University at Northridge, estimates that more than two hundred thousand people were killed by Japan's biological weapons.

Biological Weapons Research in Great Britain

The Allies—France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States—did not use biological weapons during World War II but did continue to research them. In the early 1940s Great Britain wanted to determine how much anthrax would be needed to attack enemy cities. Accordingly, in 1942 British scientists built a twenty-five-pound bomb, eighteen inches high and six inches wide, and filled it with anthrax spores. The bomb was exploded over a flock of sheep on Gruinard Island, off the northwest coast of Scotland. In the days after the bomb was detonated, large numbers of sheep died of anthrax. This proved that Bacillus anthracis weapons could be produced and exploded without destroying the disease-causing bacteria.

In other experiments performed during 1942 and 1943, Britain exploded more anthrax bombs over Gruinard Island. After each trial, diseased sheep carcasses were hauled to the rim of a nearby cliff and tossed over. Eventually, the cliff face was blown up with explosives, blanketing the carcasses with rocks. The British tried to disinfect the remainder of the island by burning off the vegetation, but were unsuccessful. Thus, Gruinard Island was sealed off and became known as "Anthrax Island." Warning signs were posted around the rim of the island that read:


More than forty years later, in 1986, the island was finally de-contaminated with a mixture of formaldehyde and seawater and reverted to normal agricultural use.

Britain also devised a method to infect cattle with anthrax, calling it "Operation Vegetarian." Starting in 1942, the British government made arrangements to acquire 5 million linseed oil cattle cakes (a type of cattle food), laced with anthrax, to drop on Germany in summer 1944. The goal of Operation Vegetarian was to destroy the German beef and dairy herds and to spread anthrax to the German population. The anthrax cakes were not used, however, since the Allied war against Germany was going well by 1944.

Development of Biological Weapons in the United States

During World War II the United States established a biological weapons research center in Camp Detrick, later renamed Fort De-trick, Maryland. With the assistance of Great Britain, the United States built its first Bacillus anthracis bomb in 1943. By May 1944 the United States had five thousand anthrax bombs, and by July 1944 the nation was capable of building fifty thousand anthrax bombs a month. U.S. military leaders wanted to be able to exterminate a huge portion of the enemy's population to stop them from fighting. However, the anthrax bombs were not used during the war.

Soon after World War II ended, the "Cold War" began. This was a long period of hostility between the United States and its allies and the Soviet Union and its confederates. Nations on both sides of the conflict continued to develop biological weapons.

In the United States, William C. Patrick III—a scientist and leading expert on biological weapons—became chief of product development at Fort Detrick. Dr. Patrick's team of researchers soon produced exceptionally deadly anthrax germs, called "weaponized" anthrax. Weaponized anthrax is composed of smooth, uniformly sized anthrax spores with no electrostatic charge, so they do not clump together. Instead, upon release the spores sail into the air, float long distances, and, when inhaled, adhere to human lungs. In addition, a single gallon of weaponized anthrax contains 8 billion lethal doses, enough to kill every person on Earth.

The U.S. military, however, needed a way to disperse the anthrax effectively; so, in 1949 the army began a series of secret outdoor experiments to find the best way to spread anthrax over Soviet cities. For the trials, the army used Bacillus globigii. This is a common, relatively harmless bacteria, with particle size and dispersal characteristics similar to anthrax. During the army's trials cluster bombs loaded with Bacillus globigii were dropped on St. Louis, Missouri; Minneapolis, Minnesota; and Winnipeg, Canada. From these tests, scientists tried to estimate the amount of anthrax needed to destroy the populations of Soviet cities like Kiev, Leningrad, and Moscow.

In another series of experiments, the U.S. Army released Bacillus globigii and Serratia marcescens (another common, rod-shaped bacteria) at various sites in the country, including New York City; San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C.; Key West, Florida; Panama City, Florida; and parts of Alaska and Hawaii. As before, the army's goal was to find the most effective means of spreading the microorganisms. The United States stopped releasing live bacteria in populated regions in 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon banned the nation's use of offensive biological weapons. Nixon issued a memorandum declaring, "The United States shall renounce the use of lethal methods of bacteriological/biological warfare [and] … the United States will confine its biological research to defensive measures such as immunization and safety."32 Nixon restricted biological weapons research to defensive purposes, noting that "mankind already carries in its own hands too many of the seeds of its own destruction."33

By the time the army's outdoor experiments ended, though, the tests had already exposed millions of Americans to various kinds of bacteria. When the secret trials became public knowledge during U.S. Senate hearings in 1977, army experts insisted that the bacteria were harmless. Civilian doctors disagreed, however. They observed that "harmless" bacteria such as Bacillus globigii can infect people weakened by other conditions such as recent surgery, deep wounds, and immune system ailments. Moreover, Serratia marcescens can cause serious illnesses, including blood poisoning, urinary system infection, respiratory system infection, and infection of the endocardium (lining of the heart).

The Biological Weapons Convention

Because the Geneva Protocol of 1925 failed to curb the development of biological weapons, another treaty was written almost a half-century later. The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological [biological] and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction, also known as the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), was ready for signing in 1972. The treaty forbids development, production, stockpiling, acquiring, or keeping biological agents or toxins "that have no justification for prophylactic [preventive], protective or other peaceful purposes."34 The BWC also requires that all biological weapons be destroyed. The treaty does allow possession of biological agents for peaceful or defensive purposes such as medical studies or vaccine production.

The BWC went into effect on March 26, 1975, and was eventually signed by 146 countries, including China, France, Great Britain, the United States, Iraq, and the Soviet Union. However, both Iraq and the Soviet Union disregarded the treaty and continued to produce anthrax and other biological weapons. There is evidence that the United States did also. In a September 2002 article in the Los Angeles Times, Barbara Hatch Rosenberg, chair of the Federation of American Scientists' Biological Arms Control Program, writes:

It was recently revealed that an Army laboratory in Utah has been secretly making weaponized anthrax for some years. Another secret project involved the construction of bomblets designed for dispersion of biological agents, although the Biological Weapons Convention explicitly prohibits [this].… Such projects have raised suspicions abroad that the U.S. continues to develop biological weapons.35

Anthrax Research in the Soviet Union

The Soviet Union's ongoing biological weapons research was demonstrated in spring 1979, when anthrax broke out in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), a Russian city in the Ural Mountains. Seventy-nine residents of Sverdlovsk became ill, and at least sixty-six people died of inhalation anthrax. Numerous sheep and cattle also perished. The Soviet government quickly vaccinated thousands of residents of Sverdlovsk and instituted a massive cleanup of the city.

Soviet officials blamed the outbreak on contaminated meat, but experts in other countries attributed it to an inadvertent release of anthrax spores from the Microbiology and Virology Institute in Sverdlovsk, a suspected biological weapons facility. In 1992, after the Soviet Union broke up, Russian president Boris Yeltsin admitted that the anthrax outbreak had been caused by an accident at a biological warfare plant. A small amount of anthrax spores had escaped from the Microbiology and Virology Institute and had been blown over the city by winds.

More evidence that the former Soviet Union had violated the BWC was revealed in 1992, when Soviet bioweapons expert Ken Alibek (formerly Kanatjan Alibekov) defected to the United States. Alibek had been deputy chief of research at the world's largest biological weapons facility, located in the Soviet Union. When questioned, Alibek acknowledged "the Soviet Union had four major anthrax production facilities.… And I became commander of … the Stepnogorsk facility [in northern Kazakhstan] in 1983 … with the specific task to develop new anthrax biological weapons."36 Alibek admitted that his research team produced large quantities of weapons-grade anthrax, which was loaded into bombs and missiles in 1989. Some military authorities believe these and other Soviet biological weapons may have been able to wipe out the populations of entire countries.

Alibek also revealed that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a number of his fellow scientists were hired by outlaw states like Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq to help them develop bioweapons. This is especially worrisome to U.S. biological weapons experts. During an interview in 2001 William C. Patrick commented, "My biggest concern now is a rogue country that supports state terrorism and has the facilities to prepare … a good dry powder of anthrax … [and] my second biggest concern is what is happening to the scientists of the former Soviet Union who have the techniques and the knowledge base to manufacture a weapons agent."37 Anthrax in dry powder form is more deadly than bacteria-filled liquids, which are easier to produce. According to anthrax expert Ken Alibek, anthrax powder is extremely lethal because "the dry clumps of spores that are each between one and five microns wide [are] the optimal size to penetrate a human lung and stay there."38

Further Proliferation of Biological Weapons

U.S. administrators believe that by the beginning of the twenty-first century, about seventeen countries had biological weapons. These included Taiwan, China, India, Pakistan, Egypt, Israel, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Iraq (before the United States and its allies invaded in 2003). Authorities fear that an unknown number of terrorist groups may also have biological weapons, since the information needed to produce these arms is available on the Internet and in books. Moreover, crude biological weapons can be made by just a few people working in a small space.

By the late 1990s the possible use of bioweapons by outlaw nations and terrorist groups was especially troubling to the United States and other Western nations.

Aum Shinrikyo Terrorists Use Anthrax Weapons

At the end of the twentieth century, Aum Shinrikyo ("Supreme Truth") was a shadowy Japanese cult that wanted to take over the world with the help of WMDs. The cult obtained Bacillus anthracis from a university and grew the bacteria in large drums of liquid in the basement of its eight-story headquarters near Tokyo. Then, in July 1993 Aum Shinrikyo pumped the liquid to the building's roof and sprayed it into the air for twenty-four hours. No one was injured or killed during this incident.

Later that year Aum Shinrikyo released anthrax spores around Tokyo eight more times, using van-mounted sprayers. Again, no sicknesses or deaths were reported. Since the anthrax caused no illnesses, Japanese authorities did not learn of the attacks until two years later, when cult members were tried for releasing sarin nerve gas in subways.

Japanese officials surmised that the cult's anthrax cultures must have been defective. This was proven true in 2001, when Paul Keim, anthrax specialist at Northern Arizona University, analyzed Aum Shinrikyo's anthrax cultures. Keim's studies showed that the cult dispersed the Sterne 34F2 strain of anthrax, which Japan uses to make animal vaccines. This unencapsulated strain does not cause disease.

Some weapons experts speculate that Aum Shinrikyo might have unknowingly used a non-virulent strain of anthrax, or that they were testing their equipment for a later deadly attack. Keim has another theory. He suggests that the cult members may have been forced to unleash the attack before they were ready out of fear of their leader, Shoko Asahara, who was known to murder anyone that angered him. Keim surmises that "when Asahara ordered in 1993 that a biological weapons attack be carried out, Aum members were probably too afraid to acknowledge that they did not have the necessary materials, so they attempted to obtain whatever they could quickly get their hands on, leading to the failed attack."39

Deploying Anthrax Weapons

Because anthrax is not contagious, only people directly exposed to the spores can become infected. To be effective, therefore, anthrax bioweapons must release a vast number of spores. Nations, which generally have armies and military equipment, have more options for deploying anthrax weapons than do terrorist groups. Leroy D. Fothergill, former director of the biological weapons laboratories at Fort Detrick, observes that there are two ways of launching an attack with bioweapons: "The first, and most important of these, is through overt military delivery through weapons systems designed to create an aerosol or cloud of the agent. The second would be through covert [undercover] methods."40

Military options for spreading anthrax bioweapons include artillery, rockets, and aerosol bombs. Other options include manned aircraft such as piloted fighter planes and helicopters, and unmanned aircraft such as remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs), which are controlled from a distance, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), which are computer-guided to preprogrammed targets. Iraq, for example, developed a drop tank for spraying anthrax weapons that could be attached to either a piloted fighter plane or a UAV. The tank was designed to spray up to two thousand liters (2113 quarts) of anthrax on a target.

Scientists warn, though, that anthrax bacteria may be destroyed in the explosion of an artillery shell, bomb, or warhead. Some experts suggest, therefore, that spraying anthrax spores from a low-flying airplane—like a crop duster equipped with nozzles that produce a fine cloud of particles—would be the best means of spreading the disease. Likely targets for such an attack might include cities, major seaports, and military bases.

Simpler means of dispersing anthrax, which terrorist groups might use, include putting spores into food or water; placing spores in letters or packages; pouring spores into power sprayers mounted on cars, trucks, or boats; or loading spores into hand-held sprayers for distribution in subway systems, shopping malls, sports arenas, airports, commercial buildings, government complexes, and so on.

Risks Associated with Anthrax Weapons

Though many countries and terrorist organizations are suspected of having anthrax weapons, they may be reluctant to deploy them. There are several reasons for this. First, anthrax may not spread as expected because of unsuitable weather conditions or barriers in the terrain, such as hills, valleys, forests, and so on. Second, anthrax microbes do not have immediate effects. Thus, in time of war, soldiers could continue to fight until they became too ill. Third, the spread of anthrax cannot be guided. Hence, the disease might strike the people that release it. This phenomenon, called "the boomerang effect," was observed during World War II. In 1942, after Japan dispersed germ weapons over one Chinese province, more than seventeen hundred Japanese soldiers were infected and killed. And lastly, nations that release biological weapons might expect catastrophic retaliation from the enemy.

Nevertheless, military experts in developed nations fear that their enemies might use biological weapons. Thus, the United States and its allies are studying ways to detect anthrax and other bioweapons, and to protect people from them.

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Anthrax Biological Weapons

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