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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 South East Asia); however, their use actually dates from antiquity.

The qualitative and quantitative impact of biological warfare, or the threat of such warfare, on military forces and urban communities has changed markedly in the past 20 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 warfare 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 biowarfare detection kits depend on antibodies reacting with the antigenic surface coatings of pathogenic bacteria or viruses. 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.

Biological agents which may be used as weapons can be classified as follows:

Bacteria. Bacteria are small free-living organisms, most of which may be grown on solid or liquid culture media. The organisms have a structure consisting of nuclear material, cytoplasm, and cell membrane. They reproduce by simple division. The diseases they produce often respond to specific therapy with antibiotics.

Viruses. Viruses are organisms which require living cells in which to replicate. They are therefore intimately dependent upon the cells of the host which they infect. They produce diseases which generally do not respond to antibiotics but which may be responsive to antiviral compounds, of which there are few available, and those that are available are of limited use.

Rickettsiae. Rickettsiae are microorganisms which have characteristics common to both bacteria and viruses. Like bacteria, they possess metabolic enzymes and cell membranes, utilize oxygen, and are susceptible to broadspectrum antibiotics. They resemble viruses in that they grow only within living cells.

Chlamydia. Chlamydia are obligatory intracellular parasites incapable of generating their own energy source. Like bacteria, they are responsive to broad-spectrum antibiotics. Like viruses, they require living cells for multiplication.

Fungi. Fungi are primitive plants which do not utilize photosynthesis, are capable of anaerobic growth, and draw nutrition from decaying vegetable matter. Most fungi form spores, and free-living forms are found in soil. The spore forms of fungi are operationally significant. Fungal diseases may respond to various antimicrobial.

Toxins. Toxins are poisonous substances produced and derived from living plants, animals, or microorganisms; some toxins may also be produced or altered by chemical means. Toxins may be countered by specific antisera and selected pharmacologic agents.

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.

Sources and Methods

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Updated Wednesday, October 21, 1998 4:35:26 PM