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Bioterror: What Can Be Done?

Virtually every major technology has been exploited not only for peaceful purposes but also for hostile ones. Must this also happen with biotechnology, which is rapidly becoming a dominant technology of our age? This is a question that comes to mind when reading Germs: Biological Weapons and America’s Secret War, a clear and informative account of biological weapons here and abroad by the New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Steven Engelberg, and William Broad.

Germs begins by describing the deliberate contamination in 1984 of salad bars in the small town of The Dalles, Oregon, with Salmonella typhimurium, a common bacterium that attacks the stomach lining and causes cramps and diarrhea. The bacteria were spread by members of a religious cult, who were apparently testing a plan to gain control of local government by keeping other citizens from voting in a coming election. Although they caused no deaths, their criminal actions caused sickness in some 750 people and illustrated a community’s vulnerability to even a relatively minor biological attack. A year passed before federal and state investigators established that the outbreak was not natural, and they were able to do so only because the cult leader himself called for a government investigation. The leader’s personal secretary and the cult’s medical care supervisor were sentenced to the maximum prison penalty of twenty years; they served less than four years and then left the country. Federal law enacted in 1994 raised the maximum penalty for such nonlethal biocrimes to life.

Americans have now experienced a far more sinister form of biological attack: seventeen cases of inhalation and cutaneous anthrax with four people dead and the person or persons responsible still at large. Yet the scale of the recent anthrax attacks was minuscule in comparison with the scale of preparations for continent-wide biological warfare conducted by major countries—notably the United States before President Richard Nixon categorically renounced biological weapons in 1969, and the Soviet Union, which even expanded its program after it was made illegal by the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975.

The advent of industrial-scale microbiology and therefore of industrial-scale biological weaponry was made possible by the proof of the germ theory of disease and the development of methods for growing pure bacterial cultures in the nineteenth century. These are accomplishments for which Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur are celebrated and which underpin the studies of tuberculosis for which Koch was awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Medicine. It was Koch who in 1876 described with great clarity the life cycle of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis and completed the proof that it causes the disease that is known in German as Milzbrand (fiery spleen), in French as charbon (because of the blackened scab it makes on the skin), in Russian as Siberskaya yasva (Siberian ulcer), and in English as anthrax (from the Greek for coal).

Anthrax is primarily an affliction of grazing animals. When multiplying in an infected animal, the bacteria are rod-shaped. But anthrax bacteria from the dead or dying animal, upon exposure to oxygen, form within themselves a tough-shelled ovoid spore that can remain dormant and infectious in the environment for years. The disease took a heavy toll among herds in Europe, Asia, and Australia until the introduction of effective veterinary vaccines, first one developed by Pasteur and then a safer and more effective vaccine developed in the 1930s by Max Sterne, a South African veterinary microbiologist. Sporadic natural outbreaks continue to occur throughout the world and have caused animal deaths and nonfatal human cutaneous cases in Minnesota, the Dakotas, and Texas this year.

The disease in human beings takes three principal forms, depending on what part of the body the spores enter and therefore on how the body responds. Most common and most easily curable with penicillin and other antibiotics is the cutaneous form, observed among people who come into contact with contaminated hides, hair, or bonemeal or who butcher infected animals. The gastrointestinal form, contracted by eating contaminated meat, is not uncommon in some poor countries and has not been much studied. Highly fatal in some outbreaks, it is less so in others. The inhalational form, mainly associated with occupational exposure to contaminated hides or animal hair, is usually fatal unless treated with antibiotics before or immediately after symptoms develop. It is this form of anthrax that has attracted the attention of those who seek to make biological weapons and those concerned to defend against them. Anthrax spores can be dispersed by bombs, aircraft spray tanks, or missiles as an aerosol sufficiently fine to remain suspended in the air and, if inhaled, to reach the depths of the lungs. Such weapons may be capable of rivaling nuclear ones in their power to kill people over large areas.

Crude anthrax bombs were produced by Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army, which attacked villages in Manchuria with anthrax, plague, and typhoid during the Sino-Japanese war in the 1930s and 1940s. Under its creator and leader, General Shiro Ishii, the unit conducted vivisection and other lethal experiments on humans. After the Japanese surrender, he and several of his associates were granted immunity from war crimes trials by American officials in exchange for data from the Japanese biological weapons program.

The US biological weapons program, as the authors of Germs write, began in 1942, first directed by George W. Merck, then president of the chemical and pharmaceutical company founded by his father. Research, development, and pilot-scale production of biological weapons were conducted at Camp (subsequently Fort) Detrick, in Maryland. By the end of the war it had some 250 buildings and employed approximately 3,500 people, engaged in both offensive and defensive work. Large-scale production of anthrax spores and of botulinal toxin was planned to take place in a plant at Vigo, Indiana, near Terre Haute, built in 1944. The plant was equipped with twelve 20,000-gallon fermentors for culturing bacteria and with production lines for filling bombs. Its production capacity was estimated to be 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 British-designed four-pound anthrax bombs per month, requiring some 320 to 480 tons of a concentrated liquid suspension of anthrax spores. As noted in Brian Balmer’s deeply researched examination of British biological-warfare policy-making,1 Winston Churchill, in placing an initial order with the US for 500,000 anthrax bombs in March 1944, wrote that it should be regarded only as a first installment. Although the Vigo plant was ready to begin weapons production by the summer of 1945, the war ended without its having done so.

In 1947, the Indiana plant was demilitarized and leased and subsequently sold to Charles Pfizer and Company for the production of animal feed and veterinary antibiotics. It was replaced by a more modern biological weapons production facility constructed at Pine Bluff Arsenal, in Arkansas, which began production late in 1954 and operated until 1969.

A sizable effort of the 1950s, discussed in Germs, was the development and testing of anthrax bombs for possible attack on Soviet cities. The weapons to be used were cluster bombs holding 536 biological bomblets, each containing a liquid suspension of anthrax spores and an explosive charge fused to detonate upon impact with the ground, thereby producing an infectious aerosol to be inhaled by persons downwind. In order to determine the area effectively covered by the aerosol from a single bomblet and therefore the number of bombs required, 173 releases of noninfectious aerosols were secretly conducted in Minneapolis, St. Louis, and Winnipeg—cities chosen to have the approximate range of conditions of urban and industrial development, climate, and topography that would be encountered in the major cities of the USSR.

A problem with this project, which had the code name St. Jo, was uncertainty about the average number of inhaled spores needed to give a high probability of killing. Experiments at Fort Detrick involving 1,236 monkeys indicated that the ID50, the dose that would infect half the monkeys inhaling it, was 4,100 spores. Other experiments, carried out under different conditions, gave monkey ID50 values ranging from 2,500 to 45,000 spores. The army estimated that the ID50 for people might be between 8,000 and 10,000 spores, with lower doses expected to cause a correspondingly lower percentage of infections. But even leaving aside the variable results with monkeys, one could not know for sure if data derived from experiments with monkeys were at all applicable to people.

Inability to establish reliable munitions requirements and the possibility of creating long-lasting contamination eventually led the US Air Force to abandon plans to use anthrax as a lethal biological agent. It was replaced by Francisella tularensis, the bacterium that causes tularemia, a disease that inflames the lymph nodes and causes lesions in many organs of the body and can be fatal. Inhalatory tularemia can be dependably cured by prompt administration of antibiotics, and this made it possible to measure its infectiousness in human volunteers—Seventh-Day Adventist conscientious objectors in the 1950s. Inhalation of approximately twenty-five bacteria was found to be sufficient to give a 50 percent chance of infection. Untreated, the death rate of inhalational tularemia was thought to be up to 60 percent, depending on the strain employed.

Other agents were introduced into the US biological arsenal, including the bacteria of brucellosis and Q-fever and the virus of Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis—all three of them incapacitating but much less often lethal than anthrax or tularemia—as well as fungi for the destruction of wheat and rice crops. The US arsenal also contained improved biological bombs for high-altitude delivery by strategic bombers and spray tanks for dissemination of biological agents by low-flying aircraft. These developments culminated in a major series of field tests of biological weapons using various animals as targets and conducted at sea in the South Pacific in 1968.

Germs tells the little-known story of Pentagon plans to attack Cuba with biological weapons in the event of a US invasion of the island during the 1962 missile crisis. The plans called for using incapacitating agents that were considered to be of relatively low lethality, and were expected to kill about one percent of those made ill. The authors quote a former Fort Detrick scientific director as believing that the use of such agents would have saved American lives. Others at the Pentagon thought it could have had the opposite effect. According to their hypothesis, not described in Germs, the defenders, feeling too ill to retreat, would have stayed in their foxholes and fortifications, using up all their ammunition before being overrun. The American attackers would therefore have been exposed to more fire than if germs had not been used, with correspondingly more loss of life. Whatever the result might have been, the use of biological weapons, even if expected mainly to incapacitate rather than kill, could, by breaking the prevailing international norm against germ warfare, have exposed Americans to far greater dangers later on.

Soon after becoming president in 1969, Richard Nixon ordered a comprehensive review of US biological and chemical weapons programs and policies, the first full study of the biological warfare program in more than fifteen years. Each relevant department and agency was instructed to evaluate several matters: the threat of biological weapons to the US and ways of meeting it; the utility of the weapons to the US; and issues raised by the possible distinction between weapons intended to be lethal and those meant only to incapacitate.

  1. 1

    Britain and Biological Warfare (Palgrave, 2001).

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