In order to combat potential threats from hostile governments and terrorist groups, should the United States resume research and developmentprograms on biological weapons

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In order to combat potential threats from hostile governments and terrorist groups, should the United States resume research and developmentprograms on biological weapons?

Viewpoint: Yes, biological weapons are a genie already out of the bottle and awaiting a master. Research and development on biological weapons should be resumed.

Viewpoint: No, resumption of research on and development of biological weapons is a medically and scientifically unneeded, inefficient, and unethical response to threats of bioterrorism.

Since formally terminating its biological weapons program in 1969, the United States has condemned the spread of biological weapons programs and lobbied for an international treaty to ban such weapons. Those who have closely followed the American biological weapons programs point out that even though research dedicated to the weaponization of biological agents supposedly ended in 1969, research that addressed the identification of and reaction to the use of biological weapons by hostile agents continued. From World War II until 1969 the United States operated a major biological weapons programs that conducted secret open-air tests of biological agents on American soil. Moreover, the project had weaponized lethal biological agents, toxins, and incapacitating agents and had stockpiled biological bombs for potential battlefield use.

In the United States, biological warfare research began during World War II in the Army Chemical Warfare Service. Most of the early work focused on anthrax and botulism, but biological agents for use against people and plants also were studied. After the war, the United States established research and development facilities at Fort Detrick, Maryland, test sites in Mississippi and Utah, and a manufacturing plant near Terre Haute, Indiana, that were dedicated to biological warfare projects. During the cold war era, the Federal Civil Defense Administration and other governmental agencies issued various warnings to the general public about the threat of biological warfare. Such warnings including a 1950 manual titled Health Services and Special Weapons Defense and pamphlets such as "What You Should Know about Biological Warfare." The public was informed that deadly biological organisms and toxins could be transmitted by air, food, and water supplies.

Research and field trials had clearly demonstrated that biological agents could be used effectively as offensive weapons by the time President Richard M. Nixon decided to terminate the American biological warfare program. In 1969 Nixon announced that "the United States of America will renounce the use of any form of deadly biological weapons that either kill or incapacitate." He also ordered the destruction of existing stocks of bacteriological weapons. In the future, Nixon asserted, all American bacteriological programs would be "confined to research in biological defense, on techniques of immunization, and on measures of controlling and preventing the spread of disease." Although the first White House statement referred to only biological and bacteriological agents, Nixon later extended the ban to include toxins and toxic agents.

In 1972 the United States was a leading supporter of a new Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), formally known as the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction. Article I stated that states that accepted the convention would never "develop, produce, stockpile or otherwise acquire or retain" biological agents or toxins that "have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes." The convention also banned "weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict." Article II called on all parties to "destroy, or to divert to peaceful purposes … all agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery specified in article I."

The BWC treaty was originally signed by 79 nations, including the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and Canada. However, the agreement was not binding on any signatory until that nation's government formally ratified the document. In 1974 the Senate ratified the 1972 convention, and President Gerald R. Ford signed it in January 1975. Critics argued that the convention had two major loopholes. The treaty did not define "defensive" research, nor did it provide a means of detecting and punishing noncompliance.

The 1972 BWC was not the first attempt to secure a global ban on germ warfare. After World War I, the Geneva disarmament convention included a "Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare." Although the United States and 28 other nations in 1925 signed the Geneva protocol against bacteriological warfare, the U.S. Senate did not ratify the document. Nevertheless, because the Geneva protocol banned only the use of biological warfare, nations conducting germ warfare research and development were technically in compliance.

Since 1969 the United States has been a leading advocate for efforts to enforce the ban on biological weapons. By the 1990s, there was considerable evidence that several states that had signed and ratified the 1972 convention were not in compliance. The Soviet Union in particular had expanded its program to develop, test, and stockpile biological weapons. American scientists suspected this in 1979 when reports of an anthrax outbreak in Sverdlovsk began to circulate. In 1992 Russian president Boris Yeltsin finally admitted that military biowarfare research had been responsible for the Sverdlovsk outbreak.

Thus, in the 1990s, on the basis of fears that rogue states or terrorist groups would use biological agents, the United States embarked on a secret project to make and test biological bombs. The Pentagon sponsored the assembly of a germ factory in the Nevada desert in order to determine how easy it would be for terrorists and rogue nations to build plants that could produce significant quantities of deadly germs. Such weapons have often been referred to as the poor man's nuclear bomb. Critics argued that such tests were banned by the 1972 BWC. The Bush administration as well as the Clinton administration argued that the convention allowed research on microbial agents and delivery systems for defensive purposes. Government officials said that the goal of this research was to mimic, in order to understand the threat, the steps that terrorists or hostile nations would take to create a biological arsenal. Iraq, for example, in the 1980s apparently began a program to produce and stockpile biological weapons.

Administration officials said the need to keep such projects secret was a significant reason for President Bush's rejection of a draft agreement to strengthen the 1972 treaty. The new provisions called for international inspections of facilities that could be conducting germ warfare research and development. The Bush administration said that it supported strengthening the treaty but was interested in finding alternative ways to enforce compliance.

In the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, policy analysts began asking whether the United States should conform to the BWC or abandon treaty obligations and openly develop and stockpile biological weapons. Some critics of the 1972 convention argue that the United States could pursue research on weaponization without stockpiling biological weapons and that this would not be a serious breach of treaty obligations. They also argue that treaties are unlikely to have any effect on terrorist groups and rogue nations, such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, and North Korea, that are interested in attacking American citizens. Other analysts contend that if the United States insists on its own right to conduct research on biological weapons, it would be setting a dangerous precedent that might stimulate the global development and dissemination of weapons of mass destruction. Those who oppose a return to deliberate research on weaponization argue that defensive research would provide the information needed to prevent or respond to existing or novel biological agents. Moreover, an emphasis on weapons research would deplete resources and talent from other areas of biomedical research. Others argue that there is no real distinction between research on defensive and research on aggressive biological agents. Thus any potentially valuable research in this area should not be artificially obstructed. Opponents argue that weapons research is likely to be very secretive and highly classified. Thus useful scientific developments would not contribute to advances in nonmilitary biomedical science.


Viewpoint: Yes, biological weapons are a genie already out of the bottle and awaiting a master. Research and development on biological weapons should be resumed.

A contentious issue that forces us to confront humankind's deepest fears, the debate over whether the United States should resume research and development programs on biological weapons often disregards the fact that although the United States biological weapons programs formally ended in 1969, by President Richard M. Nixon's executive order, research on potential biological weapons has never stopped. Only formal research dedicated to the weaponization of agents has stopped. As abhorrent as the argument may be on a personal level, there are valid strategic reasons for the United States to abandon its current BWC policy and treaty obligations in order to openly resume formal research and development programs on the actual weaponization of biological agents. Renewed research on and development of biological weapons do not demand that the United States begin to accumulate or stockpile such weapons, and this essay makes no such argument. Regardless, the evolution of political realities in the last half of the twentieth century clearly points toward the probability that within the first half of the twenty-first century, biological weapons will surpass nuclear and chemical weapons as a threat to the citizens of the United States. An effective defense against biologic agents—and the development of strategic weapons that will deter attack on the United States—can be obtained only through limited but deliberate biological weapons research.

With regard to the strategic long-term interests of the United States, the arguments in favor of resuming biological weapons programs essentially depend on assessments and assertions made regarding the potential threat, the potential enemies who might use similar weapons, and the scientific and/or strategic goals that might be achieved by such programs.

It is difficult to overstate the threat from effective biological weapons. An airborne weapon in the form of a virus or bacteria with a 100% lethality on exposure that is also stable at a range of atmospheric conditions, easily transmittable, and releasable from multiple sites could drive human population numbers low enough to threaten extinction and/or so isolate populations (i.e., gene pools) as to effectively induce speciation or subspeciation that would signal the formal extinction of Homo sapiens. Some life might continue to exist, but in a very real sense, it would not be human as we currently understand and use the term. In addition, rapid advances in knowledge regarding the human genomic sequence and advances in the use of virus vectors to insert specific sequences of DNA into target host sequences—procedures based on gene therapies that medical scientists currently argue may yield a bounty of beneficial medical treatments—can, with similar technological tools and training, be twisted into specifically tailored biological weapons targeted at groups with specific genetic traits. Once a horror of science fiction, recent advances in human genomics make these types of weapons both feasible and obtainable.

Between the extremes of extinction-level-event biological weapons and targeted biological weapons lie a multitude of threat scenarios. Weapons of far less lethality and/or transmissibility can be used to collapse a nation or society by overburdening its medical and economic infrastructure. An effective biological weapon could have no effect on humans but induce famine and economic ruin if targeted at livestock or agricultural production. The ultimate biological weapon would, of course, be one devastating to a specifically targeted enemy for which effective countermeasures (e.g., an appropriate vaccine) could be developed to protect the aggressor and chosen allies. Such a weapon would carry to an extreme—and far surpass—the intended strategic usefulness of the high-radiation neutron bomb designed to maximize lethal radiation exposure with a minimal blast damage (i.e., a bomb intended to kill populations with a minimal impact on the physical, nonbiological infrastructure of a target).

Although fears of terrorist use of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, against the United States increased in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, the threat before the attacks was deemed significant enough that in 1996 the U.S. Congress passed the Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Act. The legislation provides millions of dollars in annual financing to train emergency responders in the treatment of nuclear, chemical, and biological injuries.

The list of potential enemies who might effectively use biological agents against the United States is growing. The development of easily obtainable global transportation and communication also has facilitated the globalization of terrorism. Historically, nation-states are self-preserving in that they take actions in their interest that do not threaten their own continuation. Akin to biological self-interest in preservation, this characteristic of political entities was the psychological underpinning of the development and implementation of a strategic policy based on mutually assured destruction (MAD) that guided research and development of nuclear weapons programs throughout the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Although force reductions and specific target profiles may soon alter the protocols for the use of small tactical nuclear weapons, the MAD doctrine remains the governing policy in formulating a response by the United States to the use of nuclear weapons against it. Moreover, in response to the threat of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons during the 1991 Gulf War, the United States asserted that an attack on its forces by an enemy using chemical and/or biological weapons would be considered grounds to respond with any and all weapons, not excluding nuclear weapons, in the U.S. arsenal.

Essentially, in lieu of a MAD-like biological weapons program response to a use of biological weapons, the United States simply attempted to extend the MAD nuclear shield to protect against attack by biological weapons. Although there are other arguments for and against the viability of this policy, it is undisputed that the use of nuclear weapons requires a highly identifiable and localizable enemy target (e.g., capitol, industry, military bases). Accordingly, except in extreme cases in which terrorist groups can be linked to a sponsoring government (as the United States linked the al-Qaeda terrorist group to the former Taliban-led government of Afghanistan) or be localized in training facilities, the extended nuclear shield offers little to no deterrence. Moreover, terrorist groups, especially those based on religious zealotry in which adherents of a particular faith focus on supernatural rewards rather than earthly political and/or military consequences, may act without regard to self-preservation. Terrorist groups organized into semiautonomous cells that operate without the formal permission or cooperation of host governments or within nations traditionally allied with the United States also are not targetable with strategic nuclear weapons.

Tangible and potential terrorist enemies of the United States are attracted to the use of biological weapons because of the potential to produce agents economically at multiple sites. In addition, these sites do not offer the more identifiable and fixed-target profile of a nuclear or chemical weapons facility. Moreover, because the medical science training required to develop biological agents is not as technically demanding as the advanced physics and chemistry training required to engineer effective nuclear and chemical weapons—and is more readily obtainable under the guise of medical science training for legitimate purposes, it is arguably easier to acquire the professional expertise to develop at least low-grade biologic weapons.

If one of the goals of renewed research on biological weapons is to counter terrorist threats, there is an admitted weakness in any MAD-like strategic defense in which biological weapons are used. As with nuclear weapons, such strategic weapons would be of little use against cells of terrorist groups. However, because terrorist groups must often work in conjunction with self-preserving nation states and because terrorist groups often evolve into self-preserving entities or political forces, it is arguable that biological weapons with built-in attenuation (self-killing factors) might provide a more usable and targetable strategic deterrent than would more difficult to contain and longer contaminating radiological weapons.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent deliberate spread of spores of the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, via the U.S. mail system (events that as of this writing have not yet been conclusively linked), a number of federal agencies already conducting active and vigorous research into defenses to potential biological weapons established new programs and upgraded facilities to counter an increased terrorist threat. For example, partially in response to terrorist attacks on the United States, in February 2002 the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases established a study group of experts to evaluate potential changes in research to address terrorist threats more effectively. The group was charged with the specific task of recommending changes in research programs to conduct more effective and expeditious research into smallpox, anthrax, botulism, plague, tularemia, and viral hemorrhagic fever.

Advances in effective therapeutic treatments (e.g., the development of antitoxins and antibodies) are fundamentally dependent on advances in the basic biologic and pathological mechanisms of microorganisms. Research on pathogenic agents is essential because research challenges are similar for combating the introduction of a pathogenic organism into a population whether it arrives as a naturally emerging infectious disease or a deliberately spread weapon of terrorism. The natural evolution of microorganisms and the development of increasingly resistant strains demand that medical technology advance—not only to counter deliberate terrorism but also to serve as a mechanism to keep pace with natural threats.

Although the emphasis of current research is to understand and develop defensive countermeasures against potential biological threats, one could characterize any research into emerging infectious agents as research with unintended benefit to potential biological weapons programs. Excepting the deliberate development and production of new strains and types of offensive biological weapons, in calling for a continued moratorium on research on biological weapons, opponents of such programs are hard-pressed to define and draw the boundary lines of prudent and responsible basic research that, intent aside, is purely defensive in effect. It is a rather modest technological and procedural leap to make the transition from genetic engineering research with vaccine agents (e.g., attenuated agents used for smallpox vaccination), ectromelia (mouse pox), and/or monkey pox to direct manipulation of factors to increase virulence or to create chimera viruses (a chimera is an organism from multiple genetic sources).

Accordingly, the argument over whether the United States should resume research and development programs on biological weapons becomes one of assessing benefit from conducting formal research into developing and weaponizing offensive agents.

Without active research into weaponization, the defensive programs of the United States are put in a blind and reactive posture. In addition to exploring defenses against potential biological threats, it is only by exploring the possibilities of actual weaponization that effective counterintelligence measures can be developed to monitor the potential development of such agents by hostile groups. In essence, unless the United States conducts active weaponization research, its medical and intelligence personnel are left to guess at defenses to mount or what to look for in terms of threats. In addition, without research on weaponization, the United States cannot formulate plans to assure adequate mobilization capacity to respond to a strategic or tactical biological weapons threat.

Potential strategic biological agents do not have to be lethal (e.g., smallpox, respiratory anthrax, plague). Biological weapons can be developed that with subsequent treatment are potentially only incapacitating (e.g., tularemia, Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis). In addition, antibiotic-resistant bacteria or immunosuppressive agents could also be turned into weapons. Accordingly, if research and limited development of biological weapons should resume, the U.S. program would not necessarily be obliged to blindly develop weapons of mass destruction. A more prudent policy would involve the reimplementation of former safety polices that dictated the development of biological weapons proceed only when a vaccine or treatment was available for the weaponized agent.

A reliance on treaty obligations with regard to terrorist organizations is inane and with regard to formal states has proved ineffective. Although it was a signatory party to the 1972 BWC, the Soviet Union maintained a well-funded and high-intensity biological weapons program throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Tens of thousands of scientists worked to produce and stockpile biological weapons, including anthrax and smallpox agents. U.S. intelligence agencies have raised doubt about whether successor Russian biological weapons programs have been completely dismantled. As of 2002, intelligence estimates compiled from various agencies provide indications that more than two dozen countries are actively involved in the development of biological weapons. The U.S. Office of Technology Assessment at various U.S. Senate committee hearings has identified a list of potential enemy states developing biological weapons. Such potentially hostile nations include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and China.

The United States is in what former Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen described as a "superpower paradox." As the United States increasingly becomes the world's dominant superpower, potential enemies are more likely to mount unconventional or asymmetrical threats using biological weapons. Only by resuming aggressive research and development programs on biological weapons can the United States exploit its scientific and technological advantages in defense against biological weapons of mass destruction.


Viewpoint: No, resumption of research on and development of biological weapons is a medically and scientifically unneeded, inefficient, and unethical response to threats of bioterrorism.

The United States should not resume research and development programs on biological weapons. Such resumption—in addition to being a violation of current treaties and conventions prohibiting the development of biological weapons and other weapons of mass destruction—is unneeded from a medical and scientific standpoint. The United States can obtain the highest levels of both deterrence and defense against an attack by a hostile force using biological weapons without further research formally dedicated to biological weapons. Moreover, the drain of talent and resources demanded by such programs would actually weaken the defenses of the United States.

Should biological weapons programs resume and biological weapons subsequently be developed and stockpiled as part of a strategic defense initiative to deter biological attack by a hostile force, the very same problems and issues confronting an aging nuclear force will confront any strategic biological weapons arsenal. The problems of weapons aging, deterioration, and disposal of outmoded weapons that plague the nuclear weapons programs will find new life in the biological warfare arena. In addition, hazards unique to use of living organisms will make the maintenance of such a force more hazardous than maintenance of nuclear and chemical weapons. There is also the historical precedent that the existence of a biological weapons stockpile will raise calls for advanced testing protocols conducted under the justification of "safeguarding the stockpile." Given the secrecy of such strategic programs, it is difficult to envision the wide input of the medical and scientific community needed to develop protocols for safe storage and testing.

From both strategic and tactical standpoints, the development of biological weapons is unneeded. Although a nightmare scenario, current military options available against identifiable bioterrorist threats are far more likely to eliminate the development or capacity to develop biological weapons by hostile forces. The current arsenal contains precision-guided conventional thermal fuel-air bombs and low-grade nuclear weapons that are more than adequate to the task of destroying even hardened enemy biological research and/or storage facilities. Moreover, should the need arise for a strike against a biological weapons stockpile, it would be most effective to use weapons capable of destroying the biological agents.

The resumption of a biological weapons program is of even less utility against nonlocalizable hostile forces (e.g., terrorist cells) that operate domestically or within the borders of other nations.

Last with regard to strategic or tactical consideration, any resumption of research on and development of biological weapons sends a negative message to developing third world nations that such programs provide a usable strategic defense. Because of lower technical demands and lower weaponization costs, the development of biological weapons is an already too attractive alternative to the development of nuclear or chemical weapons. A resumption of formal biological weapons research by the United States would almost certainly result in a global biological arms race.

Reinstitution of a formal research and development program for biological weapons will also shift financial resources away from a balanced, effective, and flexible response to biological, chemical, and radiological threats. Financial resources would be better spent, for example, on further development of the National Pharmaceutical Stockpile Program (NPS) as part of a strategy to mount a rapid response to an attack with biological weapons. A strategic stockpile of antibiotics, vaccines, and other countermeasures that can be rapidly deployed to target areas is the most tangible and viable defense to the most likely biological attack scenario—the limited use of biological agents by terrorists.

The financial and scientific talent costs of resuming biological weapons research would impede the development of defense strategies at a time when their development is most critical. Testimony before the U.S. Congress by federal agencies involved in coordinating a response to a biological weapons attack clearly asserts that the U.S. public health infrastructure is currently not yet in the optimal position to either detect or respond to an attack with biological weapons. Although additional funds have been allocated to train emergency responders—and this is an ongoing annual budgetary commitment—more funds are needed to improve hospital and laboratory facilities.

Even with the most advanced biological weapons program, it would be impossible to anticipate every agent or form of biological attack that might confront the United States. It is therefore more imperative that scientific and medical responses be improved for maximum scientific flexibility and response to future threats. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), based in Atlanta, has already established a bioterrorism response program. The program, by increasing both basic science testing and treatment capacities, is the model and the nucleus for the most effective response to a bioterrorist attack. The CDC strategy calls for the further development of laboratories equipped to detect and study biological agents, renewed emphasis on epidemiological detection and surveillance, and the development of a public heath infrastructure capable of providing information and treatment guidance. By strengthening both preparedness and response, the CDC program enhances the national defense far more than does clandestine research on biological weapons, which has only intangible benefit.

The CDC openly identifies potential biological threats and publishes on its Web pages a list of the biological agents most likely to be used by hostile forces. Along with basic scientific information, the CDC and National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded agencies provide information designed to inform the public about threats and appropriate medical responses. Criticism of such openness and calls for clandestine research programs are misguided. Experts testifying before Congress have asserted that it takes less than $10,000 worth of equipment to make crude biological weapons. Accordingly, because the total prevention of the development of crude biological weapons by terrorists is not feasible, the only rational and effective response is to openly prepare for such an attack. Arguably, an effective defense preparedness program might actually deter attacks by all but the most suicidal extremist groups. Little gain could be anticipated through the use of the most common agents, and the actual damage done in such attacks would be minimal.

In contrast to weapons research programs, increased knowledge and communication between medical and nonmedical personnel concerning the symptoms of exposure to pathogens strengthen the detection and epidemiological tracking capabilities essential to an early and effective response. Programs such as the developing Health Alert Network (HAN), National Electronic Disease Surveillance System (NEDSS), and Epidemic Information Exchange (Epi-X) are designed to coordinate and enhance information exchange.

The most effective response against the use of new strains—or against more exotic biological agents—is mounted by the CDC Rapid Response and Advanced Technology laboratory and the tiered system of laboratory facilities designed for early and accurate detection and identification of pathogenic agents. After the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, additional funds were quickly allocated to enhance the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 1999 bioterrorism initiative. One of the key elements of the Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Program (BPRP) was to develop and make operational a national laboratory response network. The development of this testing capacity has double value because it facilitates identification and information sharing regarding emerging natural diseases. Even before the latest expansion, the additional laboratory capacity already demonstrated its merit with the detection of several viral encephalitis strains along the east coast of the United States.

At the treatment end of the response spectrum, it is difficult to envision a plan capable of adequately preparing any local medical facility for a full response to a biological weapons attack. Regardless, specific response plans to bioterrorism events are now a part of the latest accreditation requirements of the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. The minimal benefit derived from extensive scientific study of biologic agent weaponization potential (the alteration of biological agents and disbursement mechanisms to make biological weapons more effective) pales in comparison with the very real defense returned by investment of financial and scientific talent resources in rapid reinforcement of local response capability by federal resources (e.g., the availability of antibiotics, vaccines, and medicines stockpiled in the NPS to assure deployment to target areas with 12 hours).

Instead of a renewed research emphasis on biological weapons, the United States has thus far maintained a more tangible defense response, primarily through increased funding of basic science research programs by the NIH. In December 2001, Congress more than doubled the previous funding for bioterrorism research. Current funding levels, estimated at approximately one billion dollars, are expected to increase over the next several years. Because of security issues, a resumption of a biological weapons program would, however, cloud research-funding issues and almost certainly involve the duplication of much basic biological research in both open and clandestine programs. This becomes particularly problematic because many scientists fear that the increased emphasis on funding research on potential agents of bioterrorism may divert resources from the existing problems of malaria, flu, tuberculosis, and other bacterial or viral agents that already kill thousands of Americans and millions people worldwide each year.

Any balanced response to bioterrorism in terms of allocation of research resources must balance the tragic deaths of five innocent Americans caused by the deliberate spread of spores of B. anthracis via the U.S. mail system in the fall of 2001 (as of this writing the number of deaths so attributed) against the estimated 12,000 to 18,000 deaths of flu each year in the United States and the millions of deaths worldwide of diarrhea caused by bacterial infection.

In 1969, five years before ratifying the BWC, the United States renounced first use of biological weapons and restricted future weapons research programs to issues concerning defensive responses (e.g., immunization, detection). There is no current evidence or argument that clandestine research programs would enhance public safety. In fact, such programs would be in stark contrast to the public bioterrorist defense initiatives previously outlined.

At present, the CDC identifies approximately 36 microbes (e.g., Ebola virus variants, plague bacterium) that might be used by bioterrorists. Instead of renewed attempts to develop new agents and improve weaponization of existing agents, basic science research on existing microbes will not only facilitate the development of treatment protocols but also, within the boundaries of the BWC, allow the identification of additional agents or genetic variants that could be used by bioterrorists. Most experts who argue before the U.S. Congress insist that instead of adding the layers of secrecy inherent in a biological weapons programs, the long-term interests of the United States would be better served by the strengthening of BWC verification procedures (currently the ad hoc VEREX commission of scientists).

Arguments that somehow the resumption of biological weapons programs will enhance the ability of intelligence services to detect biological weapons production are nebulous. To be sure, existing efforts at BWC verification are made more difficult by the nature of biological weapons (e.g., the small quantities needed, the ability to conceal or camouflage agents), but no coherent argument is raised about how research into weaponization will enhance these detection efforts. Accordingly, any resumption of research and development on biological weapons is a medically and scientifically unneeded, inefficient, and unethical response to threats of bioterrorism.


Further Reading

"Biological Diseases/Agents Listing." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. April 5, 2002 [cited January 23, 2002]. <>.

Cole, Leonard A. The Eleventh Plague: The Politics of Biological and Chemical Warfare. New York: WH Freeman and Company, 1996.

Dando, Malcolm. Biological Warfare in the 21st Century. New York: Macmillan, 1994.

Dennis, D. T., et al. "Tularemia as a Biological Weapon." Journal of the American Medical Association 285, no. 21 (June 6, 2001): 2763-73.

Dire, D. J., and T. W. McGovern. "CBRNE:Biological Warfare Agents." eMedicine Journal 3, no. 4 (April 2002): 1-39.

Fleming, D. O., and D. L. Hunt. Biological Safety: Principles and Practices. 3rd ed. Washington, DC: American Society for Microbiology, 2000.



An international treaty prohibiting development and use of biological weapons. The BWC describes biological weapons as "repugnant to the conscience of mankind." As of 2002, more than 159 countries had signed and 141 had ratified this 1972 agreement that prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological weapons. The BWC specifies and directs that biological toxins and pathogens that have no established protective (prophylactic) ability, beneficial industrial use, or use in medical treatment not be developed. Biological weapons stockpiles were to have been destroyed by 1975.


The capacity to turn peacefully produced biological agents into biological weapons.


A common abbreviation for "nuclear, biological, and chemical."


The production of biological agents (e.g., anthrax spores) of such nature and quality that they can be used to effectively induce illness or death. Weaponization includes concentrating a strain of bacterium or virus, altering the size of aggregations of biologic agents (e.g., refining clumps of anthrax spores to sizes small enough to be effectively and widely carried in air currents), producing strains capable of withstanding normally adverse environmental conditions (e.g., disbursement weapons blast), and the manipulation of a number of other factors that make biologic agents effective weapons.

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In order to combat potential threats from hostile governments and terrorist groups, should the United States resume research and developmentprograms on biological weapons

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