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A biological weapon is a weapon that delivers toxins or pathogens (like bacteria or viruses), with the goal of making people sick or killing them. Biological weapons are also called bio-weapons. Their use in war is called biological warfare.
Parts of a biological weapon
A biological weapon usually has two parts. The first is the biological agent (also called a bio-agent, biological threat agent, or biological warfare agent). This is the pathogen that is meant to make people sick. The second is the delivery system - how the biological agent is going to get to and expose the people it is supposed to infect.
Some bio-agents can be "weaponized" - changed to make them more dangerous. For example, sometimes scientists can change a pathogen's genes so the pathogen is deadlier, and so it will not be killed by usual antidotes or treatments. Some bio-agents can be changed so they are easier to store, spread, or use as weapons.
As of 2016, there are more than 1,200 different kinds of bio-agents that could be made into weapons.
Examples of biological agents
Examples of some biological agents and toxins are listed below. Experts have said that these pathogens could be used as biological weapons. A few already have been used, including anthrax, bubonic plague, smallpox, and ricin.
|Bacillus anthraces||Anthrax||Was weaponized by the U.S., Soviet Union, and Iraqp.26|
|Brucella species||Brucellosis|| Brucella suis was the first bio-agent weaponized by the U.S., in 1954;|
Brucella species easily survive in aerosol form
|Yersinia pestis||Bubonic or pneumonic plague|| Killed 60% of Europe's population in the 1300s.|
Pneumonic plague is fatal if antibiotics are not given within 1 day after symptoms startp.55
Weaponized by U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War
|Vibrio cholerae||Cholera||Could be spread by contaminating water supplies|
| Shigella dysenteriae;
Some species of Escherichia coli
|Dysentery||Could be spread by contaminating food suppliesp.212|
|Coxiella burnetii||Q fever|| Number of bacteria needed to infect a person is one - the lowest known to manp.67|
Can live on surfaces for 60 days, in aerosols, and in many temperatures
Weaponized by U.S. between 1942-1969
|Francisella tularensis||Tularemia|| Very contagious; bacteria are very easy to get because they occur in nature;|
Weaponized by U.S. between 1942-1969
|Rickettsia prowazekii||Typhus||High mortality rate if untreated; can be spread by aerosolp.169|
|Staphylococcus aureus||Many|| Could be spread by contaminating food supplies or by aerosol|
Some strains (like MRSA) are resistant to antibiotics
|Alphaviruses||Many|| Can cause many forms of viral encephalitis; very low dose needed|
for infection. Easily spread by aerosol.p.96
|Filoviridae and Arenaviridae viruses||Many|| Cause viral hemorrhagic fevers, like Ebola virus and Lassa fever|
Can be spread by aerosol; very high mortality ratesp.107
|Variola major||Smallpox|| Very contagious, easily spread through air, mortality rate 20-40%|
Eradicated in 1970s, but laboratories still have samples
|Toxin||Toxin Comes From:||Toxin Causes:||Comments|
|Botulinum||Clostridium botulinum||Botulism|| One of the deadliest toxins known to exist;|
Weaponized by U.S. between 1942-1969p.122
|Ricin||Castor oil plant||Ricin poisoning||Can be made at home; very toxic by any route of exposure|
Examples of delivery systems
In the past, countries have designed many different delivery systems for exposing people to biological agents. These systems have included:
- Bombs, missiles, hand grenades, and rockets, with the biological agent inside
- Tanks that could spray bio-agents from airplanes, cars, trucks, and boats
- Aerosol sprayers
- Brushes to contaminate surfaces with bio-agents
- Ways of contaminating food and clothing
Examples of biological weapons
A biological agent by itself is not enough to make a biological weapon. Neither is a delivery system by itself. A biological weapon has to have both: the bio-agent that is meant to make people sick, and a system to deliver that agent.
Here are a few examples of biological weapons that have been used throughout history.
|Year||Bio-Agent||Delivery System||Used By|
|1346||Yersinia pests (plague)||Corpses of bubonic plague victims||Tartar army to attack Crimea|
|1763||Variola major (smallpox)||Blankets from smallpox victims||British soldiers to attack Native Americans|
|1940s||Yersinia pests (plague)||Plague-infected ticks dropped from airplanes||Japan to attack China during World War IIp.56|
|1941||Vibrio cholerae (cholera)||Contaminated food & water||Japan to attack China|
|2001||Bacillus anthraces (anthrax)||Mailed letters||Terrorists to attack U.S. politicians and news stations|
|2013||Ricin||Mailed letters||Terrorists to attack U.S. President Obama and a U.S. Senator|
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