Biological Weapons


Biological Weapons


Warfare with biological weapons is the deliberate use of biological agents, i.e., infectious agents in the form of live microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, fungi, or parasites) or toxins (poisons) to cause disease, death, disability (paralysis), and other related harm to humans, animals (livestock), or plants (agricultural crops). Toxins are poisonous substances produced either biologically from certain types of bacteria from animals, plants, or microorganisms, or produced synthetically, and which can have harmful effects in a living organism.

Biological weapons cause epidemics of infectious diseases that affect everyone, including civilians. Among the best-known biological weapons is anthrax bacterium, which was used in the autumn of 2001 in a terrorist attack in the form of letters to the Senate office building in Washington and to the media in New York. Ricin and botulinum toxin are other biological weapons. The diseases that may be used as biological weapons and present the greatest biological danger are botulism, plague, cholera, typhoid, and smallpox.

The most effective way to use biological weapons is by spreading the microorganisms or toxins in the air, for example in bombs and missiles, or aerial spraying from aircraft equipped with spray tanks. They can also be spread through foodstuffs and the drinking water supply.

The spread of pathogenic microorganisms in biological warfare or terrorist attacks is now regarded as one of the most serious threats to national and regional security. According to expert estimates,1 spreading 100 kilograms of anthrax bacteria in the air over Washington, DC, could cause between one and three million deaths. By comparison, an atomic bomb of one megaton dropped on the US capital would cause between about half a million to two million deaths. What makes biological weapons particularly dangerous and feared is the fact that they are relatively uncomplicated and inexpensive to manufacture, compared with other types of weapons of mass destruction. Therefore, these weapons can easily be made available to non-state individual actors, including terrorist organizations. Biological weapons can be produced in small bio laboratories that are hidden in civilian laboratories, for example in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical drug industry. Hundreds of laboratories in the world have stocks of anthrax bacteria which is used for research, diagnosing diseases, and developing vaccines. Biological weapons, however, are not resistant to effects from outside and they are unstable. Airborne biological weapons can be affected by weather conditions (wind and temperature) and are thus uncertain and unpredictable. There are also significant technical challenges to producing larger quantities of biological agents for use as biological weapons.

Unlike chemical weapons, biological weapons have never been used in large-scale warfare. However, the possibility of biological weapons being used by terrorist organizations is regarded with the utmost seriousness and as a real threat today – especially in the United States. In November 2009, President Obama announced a national strategy to counter the threat from biological weapons (National Security Council’s National Strategy for Countering Biological Threats). The strategy deals with the challenges of the proliferation of biological weapons and protection against the misuse of science that can be used to manufacture and proliferate biological weapons.


Efforts to ban biological weapons go back to 1925, when the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare of 1925 was adopted. The protocol was signed in Geneva and is therefore often referred to as the Geneva Protocol or the 1925 Protocol. It entered into force in 1928, and has been ratified, or agreed to, by a total of 140 countries, including all five nuclear-weapon states, the four nuclear-armed states, and Egypt, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The use of poison gas during the First World War, which caused many deaths and terrible suffering for the wounded victims, had caused public outrage and condemnation. After the war there was international agreement to ban the use of poison gas in war. The adoption of the protocol extended the already existing prohibition in the Annex to the Fourth Hague Convention on the use of poison or poisoned weapons to include prohibiting the use of bacteriological methods of warfare.