OF DR. KENNETH ALIBEK
Biological weapons are weapons of mass destruction (or mass casualty weapons, to be precise, since they do not damage nonliving entities) that are based on bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, fungi, or toxins produced by living organisms. Compared to nuclear, chemical, or conventional weapons, biological weapons are unique in their diversity. Dozens of different agents can be used to make a biological weapon, and each agent will produce a markedly different effect. These differences are shaped by various properties of the particular agent, such as its contagiousness, the length of time after release that it survives in the environment, the dose required to infect a victim, and of course the type of disease that the agent produces.
Biological weapons are relatively inexpensive and easy to produce. Although the most sophisticated and effective versions require considerable equipment and scientific expertise, primitive versions can be produced in a small area with minimal equipment by someone with limited training.
Biological weapons can be deployed in three ways:
by contaminating food or water supplies; releasing infected
vectors, such as mosquitoes or fleas; or creating an aerosol cloud to be
inhaled by the victims.
Since industrialized countries have adequate water
purification systems, contamination of the water supply is the least
effective method for disseminating a biological weapon in such countries.
Contamination of food supplies would most likely be used in a
terrorist attack, since it is difficult to contaminate enough food to gain
a military advantage. Release
of infected vectors is not particularly efficient for either military or
terrorist purposes and entails a high probability of affecting those
producing the weapons or living nearby.
By far, the most effective mode for applying biological weapons is an aerosol cloud. Such a cloud is made up of microscopic particles and is therefore invisible. It can be produced in several ways, most of which involve either an explosion (some type of bomb) or spraying (usually involving a special nozzle on a spray tank). The effectiveness of the cloud is determined by numerous factors, such as the amount of agent that survives the explosion or spraying, and the wind and weather conditions outdoors or air flow and ventilation indoors.
The primary result of an effective aerosol cloud is simultaneous infections among all those who were exposed to a sufficiently dense portion of the cloud. If the agent is contagious, the disease will then spread. In addition, agents that can survive for a long time in the environment will eventually settle, contaminating the ground, buildings, water and food sources, and so on. In some cases, these sediments can form another dangerous aerosol cloud if they are disturbed.
interest of terrorist groups in biological weapons is no surprise.
Biological weapons have a number of very attractive features for
terrorist uses. Their killing
power can approach that of nuclear weapons.
They are relatively inexpensive to make.
A small-scale biological weapons attack using a common disease
organism, such as tularemia or plague, can be masked as a natural
outbreak. The effects of a
biological weapons attack are not apparent for several days, allowing the
perpetrator time to vanish. The
raw material—disease-producing strains of microorganisms—is fairly
easy to obtain. And the
techniques and equipment that are used in ordinary biotechnology research
and production can be used for biological weapons.
Terrorists interested in biological weapons are on the level of state-sponsored terrorist organizations such as that of Osama bin Laden; on the level of large, independent organizations such as Aum Shinrikyo; or on the level of individuals acting alone or in concert with small radical organizations. Although these groups will produce biological weapons with varying levels of sophistication, they all can potentially cause great damage. While the most obvious damages are illness and death, other potential results include panic; direct economic losses due to the costs of medical care, decontamination and other forms of cleanup, crowd control, and collateral agricultural damages such as animal deaths; and indirect economic losses caused by a drop in tourism and/or bans on farm exports from the target area.
there is no doubt that we will see future uses of biological weapons by
terrorist groups, as there have been several attempts already. One incident, in 1984, involved members of the Rajneeshee
cult contaminating restaurant salad bars in Oregon with salmonella,
sickening 751 people. Another
involved the Aum Shinrikyo cult. Although
best known for its chemical attack in the Japanese subway system in 1995,
the cult also attempted to release anthrax from the rooftop of a Tokyo
building in 1993. No
casualties resulted, but had the cult better understood cultivation of
anthrax spores and urban air flow dynamics, the results might have been
as illustrated by the difficulties Aum Shinrikyo experienced in mounting a
biological weapons attack, it is not true that anyone who can brew beer
can make a batch of biological weapons.
While someone with a strong background in microbiology could
certainly produce a crude biological weapon to affect a small number of
people and create panic, sophisticated weapons require sophisticated
terrorist groups, the most likely source of such knowledge would be
state-sponsored biological weapons programs, which have the financial and
scientific wherewithal to perfect production and deployment techniques.
Since the Soviet Union and Russia had the most sophisticated and
powerful biological weapons program on earth, the former Soviet states
present a particular proliferation threat.
The tremendous knowledge amassed by former Soviet scientists would
be extremely useful to both military and terrorist organizations.
most people think of proliferation, they imagine weapons export.
In the case of biological weapons, they picture international
smuggling either of ready-made weapons material, or at least of cultures
of pathogenic microorganisms. However, this area of proliferation is of the least concern.
Even without such assistance, a determined organization could
obtain virulent strains of microorganisms from their natural reservoirs
(such as soil or animals), from culture libraries that provide such
organisms for research purposes, or by stealing cultures from legitimate
laboratories. To the best of
my knowledge, the Soviet Union and Russia have not exported actual strains
of microorganisms. There are
other types of biological weapons proliferation that are of greater
first involves experienced scientists traveling or moving abroad.
For example, there have been unconfirmed reports that scientists
from the Kirov facility visited North Korea in the early 1990s.
In addition, numerous scientists who used to work for the Soviet
biological weapons program are now living abroad.
Many of these scientists live in the West, but others have gone to
Iran and other countries where their expertise can be put to nefarious use
in state-run biological weapons programs.
second type of proliferation involves scientists from other countries
being brought to the proliferating country for training in biotechnology,
microbiology, and genetic engineering techniques. For years Moscow State University provided such training to
scientists from dozens of countries, including Cuba, North Korea, Eastern
Bloc nations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
third form of proliferation involves private companies selling scientific
expertise. For instance, I
have a flier from a company that advertises recombinant
Francisella tularensis bacteria
with altered virulence genes. Ostensibly,
these organisms are being offered for vaccine production; the flier also
notes that they can be used as genetic recipients and to create
recombinant microorganisms of biologically active agents.
The authors of the flier also express willingness to form
cooperative ventures to which they will contribute their genetic
engineering knowledge. The
director of this company used to work for the USSR’s biological weapons
A fourth type of proliferation occurs when the
proliferating country sells equipment that can be used in biological
weapons production. Such
equipment is generally termed “dual-use”, as it can be used for
legitimate biotechnology production and for biological weapons production.
An example of such proliferation is the planned sale by Russia of
large fermenters to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.
Fortunately, the sale was not completed. I have no doubt that these fermenters were destined for use
in biological weapons production. First
of all, Iraq has used the guise of single-cell protein production as a
cover for biological weapons facilities in the past.
Second, the particular fermenter size involved in this proposed
sale would not be suitable for efficient single-cell protein production.
In fact, the resultant product would be prohibitively expensive.
Similarly, in 1990, Biopreparat was negotiating the sale of
dual-use equipment to Cuba as well.
The fifth kind of proliferation consists of published
scientific literature. Just
by reading scientific literature published in Russia in the last few
years, a biological weapons developer could learn techniques to
genetically engineer vaccinia virus and then transfer the results to
smallpox; to create antibiotic-resistant strains of anthrax, plague, and
glanders; and to mass-produce the Marburg and Machupo viruses.
Billions of dollars that the Soviet Union and Russia put into
biotechnology research are available to anyone for the cost of a
Given the current economic situation in the states of the
former Soviet Union, the incentive to sell equipment and knowledge
suitable for biological weapons production without regard to their
eventual use is great both for the government and for individual
scientists and businessmen. The
Russian government has long been short of funds, and its biotechnology
arena has also been adversely affected.
Many of its scientists are unemployed; those that are employed are
paid poorly or not at all. Some of them have been forced to turn to other lines of work,
such as street vending. It is
important for the international community to ensure that these scientists
have legitimate, decent-paying work to do in their fields.
The proliferation issue is particularly complex for
biological weapons. In many
cases, the same equipment and knowledge that can be used to produce
biological weapons can also be used to produce legitimate biotechnological
products such as vaccines and antibiotics.
Thus, we cannot outright forbid the export of most of the relevant
knowledge and equipment as we can with nuclear weapons.
And even if we did, such regulations would be practically
impossible to enforce.
I believe that we should strive for transparency in the
conduct of “dual-use” research and in the trade of cultures of
pathogenic microorganisms and sophisticated biotechnology equipment.
Clear international standards should regulate such trade.
Such regulations would entail bans on certain activity, such as the
sale of pathogenic microorganisms to individuals not associated with
legitimate research institutions—not with the assumption that the ban
would be enforceable, but to clearly delineate acceptable conduct.
The main focus of the regulations, though, would be reporting
requirements for the sale or transfer of potentially dangerous cultures,
genetic material, or equipment. An
international organization would maintain the records of such transfers.
While export controls, international treaties and
inspection protocols, protective suits, and vaccines all play a role in
defense against biological weapons, none of these can eliminate the threat
Biological weapons are in essence a medical problem, and
thus require a medical solution. The
ultimate goal of bio-defense is to prevent suffering and loss of life.
If biological weapons have minimal impact on the well-being of
their targets, they are ineffective and thus cease to be a threat.
Therefore, we must concentrate on developing appropriate medical
There are three main types of medical defense against
biological weapons: pretreatment
(administered before exposure), urgent prophylaxis (administered after
exposure, but before symptoms arise), and chemotherapy (administered after
onset of illness).
Pretreatment consists largely of vaccines but also includes certain drugs that can be administered before exposure to prevent disease. Use of pretreatment measures in bio-defense will be effective only when all of the following conditions are met:
target population is known and limited, i.e. military troops within range
of an enemy’s arsenal, since it is not realistic to vaccinate or provide
drugs to everyone in the country.
is known precisely what biological agents are in the enemy’s biological
weapons arsenal, or the number of possible agents has been narrowed down
to a few, since it is impossible to vaccinate or provide drugs against
dozens of agents simultaneously.
for the agent has already been developed.
Note that for many biological agents, among them glanders,
melioidosis, Marburg virus, Ebola virus, and Lassa fever, no vaccine
exists; for most viral agents, no pretreatment exists.
biological agents used are not genetically altered strains that are
vaccine- or drug-resistant.
Clearly, pretreatment techniques are of very limited use.
Therefore, we cannot rely exclusively or even primarily on
pretreatment for medical bio-defense.
We must also ensure that means for urgent prophylaxis and treatment
of these diseases are available as well.
Of the existing drugs that could be useful in urgent
prophylaxis and treatment, many are not available in sufficient
quantities; some are no longer manufactured at all.
In addition, for many of the agents that can be used as biological
weapons, no drug treatment protocols exist.
must greatly increase our efforts to
develop new treatment and urgent prophylaxis techniques.
This should include new approaches, such as preparations that can
protect against and treat a wide variety of pathogens.
These efforts, as well as the funds spent on research and
development, will pay for themselves many times over.
In addition to contributing to preparedness for a biological
attack, they will provide a much-needed push in the treatment of
infectious diseases that occur under natural conditions.
Infectious diseases remain one of the leading causes of death in
the world and cause tremendous losses, in terms of both money and human
lives, every year. Furthermore,
such medical research will also contribute to the treatment of
noninfectious diseases, such as autoimmune disorders and cancer.
The twenty-first century is anticipated to be the century
of biotechnology and information technology. This is a potent mix for future biological weapons
development. The rapid
advances anticipated in microbiology, molecular biology, and genetic
engineering will improve our lives—but they are all “dual-use”
technologies that can be used in biological weapons development.
Our improved knowledge of medicine and the functioning of the human
body will enable us to improve human health and quality of life—but can
be used to develop more sophisticated biological weapons.
The explosive growth of information technology means that anyone
with a computer has instantaneous access to tremendous amounts of
information—including techniques that can be used in biological weapons
We cannot, and should not, halt the progress of science
and technology, but we must bear in mind that it is a double-edged sword.
To protect ourselves from the threat of biological weapons, we must
increase our awareness and understanding of the threat, strengthen current
international agreements and increase transparency, and most importantly,
develop new medical means to render such weapons useless.