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Introduction to Biological Weapons

Throughout history, infectious diseases contracted naturally have had a significant impact on military operations. The intentional dissemination of disease adds a new dimension to threats that are posed by infectious and toxic agents traditionally transmitted only by natural routes. Biological agents reportedly have been employed to a limited extent during recent military conflicts (for example, dispersion of plague bacilli during World War II and use of trichothecene mycotoxins ("yellow rain" in Southeast Asia); however, their use actually dates from antiquity.

The qualitative and quantitative impact of a biological attack, or the threat of such attacks, on communities and military forces has changed markedly in the past 30 years. Improved production techniques have resulted in more virulent strains of organisms and the genetic modification of non-pathogenic organisms to pathogenic strains with virulent characteristics. The implications of genetic engineering for chemical and biological attacks are far-reaching. Genetic engineering provides the potential for improved virulence by the incorporation of genes (i.e., specific strands of DNA) permitting increased production of a pathogen or toxin. Thus, as much as 100 times more pathogen or toxin could be produced per cell than that which could be produced by naturally occurring strains. Cells that normally do not produce toxins may be altered to produce toxins for biological weapon development. Conversely, known pathogens or toxins may be genetically inactivated for vaccine countermeasure development. Cells can also be modified to produce antibodies directly for passive immunization against specific infectious agents. As with the human immune system, many current biological agent detection kits depend on antibodies reacting with the antigenic surface coatings of pathogenic microorganisms. Thus, modified non-pathogens can be used to mask the agent from the immune-based detector and, potentially, from the human immune system itself to increase the agent's effectiveness.

General robustness or survivability of a pathogen under the environmental stresses of temperature, ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and desiccation (drying) can also be genetically improved to promote stability during dissemination; nutrient additives are used to enhance survival of selected biological agents in aerosols. Controlled persistence of a pathogen to permit survivability under specified environmental conditions may eventually be possible. The potential also exists for the development of so-called "conditional suicide genes," which could program an organism to die off following a predetermined number of replications in the environment. Thus, an affected area may be safely reoccupied after a predetermined period of time.

Intrinsic features of biological agents which influence their potential for use as weapons include: infectivity; virulence; toxicity; pathogenicity; incubation period; transmissibility; lethality; and stability. Unique to many of these agents, and distinctive from their chemical counterparts, is the ability to multiply in the body over time and actually increase their effect.

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Contact:  Michael Stebbins (mstebbins@fas.org)
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