The ABCs of biological warfare and terror agents

Background: Only a small amount is needed to wipe out hundreds of thousands in an urban area.

By
January 24, 2010 10:45
4 minute read.
Paramedics during an exercise simulating a chemica

Paramedics during an exercise simulating a chemical attack. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Biological warfare and bioterrorism are as old as fourth-century BCE Scythian fighters wiping their arrows on decomposing bodies before shooting them at their enemies and as new as ricin toxin delivered to a US Senate mailroom in 2004. They consist of using viruses, bacteria, fungi and other toxic agents to kill or incapacitate people, either individually or en masse.

The signing of the Geneva Protocol by 108 nations about more than 80 years ago to prohibit the use of biological agents did not prevent the use of biological weapons by armies or terrorists. They were used by Viet Cong guerillas in Vietnam, allegedly stocked by Iraq during Operation Desert Storm, Japanese cults and terrorists in Britain.  Because of the ongoing threat, the relative ease in delivery and difficulty in containment, many Western countries including Israel carry out drills to prepare their emergency teams to cope with any such disaster.

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Theoretically, over 1,000 different biological substances could be utilized to harm people, but many are unavailable on a large scale or not easy to use. But as they are microscopic agents, only a very small amount is needed to wipe out hundreds of thousands of people in an urban area. This concentration and the fact that they have no smell, color or taste make it easy for bioterrorists to purchase, hide and use.

The methods of delivery include explosives such as bombs and missiles that explode and spread their deadly contents; dispersed in the air; absorbed by or injected into the the skin; and introduced into water or food. The faster the symptoms are detected by doctors and other experts, the more people can be saved.

Drills include the wearing of protective masks and clothing by those who participate; "victims' are rushed to the hospital and then washed down with soap and water before they enter and are treated in isolation. There are injected antidotes for some poisonous agents (as in the kits handed out to Israelis before the first Gulf War, as well as antibiotics against dangerous bacteria.

But antibiotics are no use against viruses such as smallpox, which are caused by the variola virus. As the natural disease was wiped out in Africa 33 years ago, only a minority of those alive today have natural immunity to it, thus it is considered by terrorists to be a "valuable" biological agent. The only places in the world where the deadly virus is officially stored is the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a Russian lab. But other stocks may exist in pariah states such as North Korea.

Smallpox kills by multiplying in the lungs and spreading through the bloodstream within an incubation period of a week or two. The virus reaches the lymph nodes and then small blood vessels, showing a rash on the skin. Encephalitis viruses can kill by infecting the central nervous system.

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Anthrax is among the most horrific bacteria and usually infect domesticated and wild animals. People can be infected through skin contact with spores from the animals or eating contaminated animal products.

Although the first sign looks innocent, just a small skin sore, pathogens develop inside and are spread when the "pimple" opens, turning the skin black. Without treatment, nearly all of the victims will die, but one victim cannot infect another. If the spores enter the body through inhalation by the nose, anthrax can poison the blood and cause hemorrhaging, shock and often death.

Brucellosis affects wild and domesticated animals and has sometimes been reported in Israel. Farm workers and others who are in contact with infected animals can catch it. It can be passed through the air or via milk and can recur as a chronic disease but rarely passes from one person to the next. The pathogens multiply and affect various major organs in the body.

The rat flea is the vector that spreads bubonic plague, which caused several major pandemics that killed millions over the centuries. The bacterial infection spreads through the bloodstream into major organs all over the body.

Cholera spread by contact with feces via food or water causes diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, causing a shortage of electrolytes (salts and sugars) in the body that can cause damage to the heart and other major organs. Although it is naturally found in underdeveloped countries, the bacteria can be produced and concentrated for use in warfare and terrorism.

The botulinum toxin that is injected in tiny amounts as Botox to temporarily smooth out wrinkles for esthetic reasons - and also is responsible for swollen cans of food - is one of the most horrific poisons known when ingested via food or inhaled. It can paralyze the muscles and make it difficult to breathe, causing respiratory failure.

Finally, ricin - produced from poisonous castor beans - is one of the most toxic substances in nature and has been used in some sensational murders over the years. The plant protein affects the gastrointestinal and respiratory systems. There are as yet no protective vaccines.

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