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Biological Warfare Emerges As 21st-Century Threat
Posted: Wednesday, October 17, 2001

Source: Stanford University (
Originally Posted 1/19/2001

History lessons

During World War II, the Japanese military killed thousands of Chinese prisoners by subjecting them to experimental doses of anthrax, cholera, plague and other pathogens.

After World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union launched full-scale bioweapons programs, which included the development of aerosol sprays capable of delivering bacterial and viral agents by plane or ballistic missile.

"Both sides also stockpiled plenty of anthrax," adds Block.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon issued an executive order unilaterally and unconditionally ending America's bioweapons program, and all U.S. stockpiles were destroyed by 1972.

That same year, 160 nations signed a treaty banning all use of biological and chemical weapons; 143 countries eventually ratified the treaty, including the United States, Russia, Iraq, Iran, Libya and North Korea.

Failed treaty

Despite its noble intentions, says Block, the 1972 treaty lacks any significant provisions for enforcement or verification. As a result, a number of signatories to the treaty have maintained active bioweapons programs.

"I'm fairly confident that the U.S. has stopped producing biological weapons," he says, "but the Soviet Union carried out ultra-secret bioweapons work right up until it collapsed in 1990."

In 1979, 100 people and countless livestock died following the accidental release of anthrax spores from a bioweapons plant in the Russian city of Sverdlovsk --- one of 40 such facilities that operated in the former Soviet Union.

Russia's dismal economic situation raises the question of how out-of-work bioweapons scientists are managing to find gainful employment now, observes Block.

"Some experts contend that a low but significant level of bioresearch still exists today," he adds.

Block's ultimate nightmare is that terrorists somehow could get access to the smallpox viruses being kept on ice in Russia -- a fear bolstered by the testimony of a former official in the Russian biowarfare program, who claimed that smallpox-based weapons were being manufactured there as recently as 1992.

Iraq also has violated the 1972 bioweapons treaty by mass-producing weapons-grade anthrax and conducting research on a wide variety of other biological agents. Details of the Iraqi bioweaponry program only came to light in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.

All told, Block estimates that about a dozen countries are believed to have active bioweapons programs.

Terrorist threat

Although Block is concerned about the bioweapons buildup in Iraq and other nations, he believes a greater threat comes from terrorist groups willing to risk an out-of-control epidemic and eager to suffer casualties for the good of "the cause."

A recent example was the 1995 sarin gas attack inside the Tokyo subway by the Japanese apocalyptic cult Aum Shinrikyo. The widely publicized assault, which killed 13 people and hospitalized thousands, had been preceded by a series of failed botulism and anthrax assaults near the Imperial Palace, a Tokyo airport and two U.S. military bases.

"Groups like Aum Shinrikyo are willing to use biological agents inefficiently just for the terror and propaganda value," Block contends.


During fiscal year 2000, the Clinton administration allocated $1.4 billion to combat both biological and chemical warfare -- a good beginning but not enough, according to Block, who believes more should be spent beefing up America's anti-terrorist intelligence effort and its emergency response capability.

Block also supports the development of high-tech devices capable of instantaneously detecting lethal bacteria and viruses in the environment, and he encourages the production and stockpiling of new vaccines -- a hot-button issue in Washington, D.C., these days.

The anthrax vaccine has stirred the most controversy. The U.S. military wants to inoculate all 2.4 million active and reserve troops, but no one knows if the current vaccine will provide immunity against inhalation anthrax -- the type commonly used in bioweapons.

As for smallpox, routine vaccinations in the United States ended in 1980, the year the virus was officially eradicated, so few Americans still have immunity today. The Centers for Disease Control will make 40 million new doses of the vaccine available beginning in 2004, but critics say that, in the event of a multi-city terrorist attack, hundreds of millions of doses will be needed to prevent the often-fatal disease from spreading throughout the country.

On the diplomatic front, Block argues in favor of strengthening the 1972 bioweapons treaty --- "giving it some 'teeth,'" he says, by requiring reciprocal international inspections to assure treaty compliance.

"Embarrassingly," he notes, "the United States itself has steadfastly resisted certain attempts to establish provisions for inspections" -- in part to protect the interests of large American pharmaceutical and biotech companies against industrial espionage.

He also makes a strong plea to his fellow biologists to break their silence and take a stand against the proliferation of biological weapons.

"Some folks simply do not take the threat seriously," he observes, "but they should. Others worry about provoking a widespread public backlash against biotechnology in general that might have a chilling effect on their own legitimate biological research."

None of these excuses stands up to close scrutiny, Block contends, adding that the time to act is now before disaster strikes.

"We should not have to wait for the biological equivalent of Hiroshima to rally our defenses," he concludes.

Editor's Note: The original news release can be found at

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