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The use of microbial agents for biowarfare purposes is not as recent as it may seem at first. Actually, the interest in disease and its value as a weapon can be traced back to the ancient cultures. However, it can be said that it has not been until the late twentieth century that, with the advances in medicine and technology, especially genetic engineering, the humans have learnt to control the devastating power of certain microorganisms. The references are certainly vague and difficult to prove since biological agents have not been considered as weapons until recent times. Rather, the different peoples of the past used to send sick or even dead individuals and/or animals to the enemy’s villages and cities to inflict them with the same scourge they were enduring. It can be said that they deliberately used the diseases against their enemies but without control of a situation that killed friends and foes alike. It was precisely this ignorance that left biological agents virtually untouched for warfare, until the technological advances of the past century made them easier to handle for such a delicate purpose.

The first alleged episode of biowarfare is stated in the First Book of Samuel. Here, we are told of the pestilence that fell on the Philistines after opening the Hebrews’ Ark of the Covenant and how they decided to return it, along with its deadly content, to their owners (1 Samuel 5: 1-12, 6: 1-21). It is also thought that Alexander the Great used to catapult dead bodies over the walls of besieged cities and that the Romans used to foul the water supplies of their enemies by throwing corpses into them (Committee on Research Standards 2004: 33-4). The effect of such deeds was both an immediate decrease in enemy numbers and the lowering of morale that characterises a sick individual. It can be said that Greeks and Romans, as the brilliant strategists they used to be, were the first to understand that a sick enemy is more easily defeated than a healthy one. Moreover, a weakened nation is more submissive and ready to be colonised inasmuch as the colonisers, who offer a stronger appearance, produce an illusory way-out towards a better future.
However, the most significant moment of biowarfare for the western world in early history was the Tartar siege of the Crimean port of Kaffa (now Feodosiya). The plague had begun to spread all over Asia and the Middle East by the early 1330s and reached Kaffa in 1346, brought by the caravan routes. The city was under siege by Janibeg, Khan of the Kipchack Tartars, who had to retreat when the epidemic started decimating his troops. Yet, he decided to catapult the dead corpses of his own soldiers over the walls of the city, thus leaving behind a chaotic scenario (Wheelis 2002: 973). The plague quickly ravaged the city, where a number of Genoese traders had sought refuge. In the summer of 1347, they left for Europe and spread the bubonic plague through the Mediterranean ports they called at. Most surely, the common rats in the ships carried infected fleas, which acted as a vector for the propagation of the disease to the sailors. By the end of the year, most of southern Europe was affected by the plague. Those who had the means hurried out of port cities only to die on the roads and carry the pandemic inland to towns and villages. The plague reached England in 1348, which had been protected for a year by the English Channel and the distance from the Mediterranean, but it eventually succumbed to the disease as did most of Europe, Asia and, at least, the north of Africa.
Six centuries must be skipped to find a biowarfare incident of similar proportions. It is one of the most abominable chapters in history, written by Japanese Unit 731 during the Second World War. This covert section of the Japanese army, which was officially named “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kuantung Army” until 1941, when its name changed to the official one, was responsible of thousands of deaths through biological agents. Not only did it perform a series of well-reported BW attacks in China but, most atrociously, used prisoners of war (POWs) for vivisection to develop bioweapons (Gold 1996: 162-3, Wu 1997, Ww2pacific 2001). While the western authorities knew all about this, none of the officers in charge of such a dreadful unit was prosecuted in the Tokyo Trial for war crimes. On the contrary, they were granted total immunity in exchange for their human experiment data.
The roots of Unit 731 must be traced back to the end of World War I in 1918, when the Japanese Army began to pay attention to science and technology as weapons of war. The theory behind this change of mind lies in the scarcity of natural resources in Japan, which made this country look for an economical but equally powerful weapon to gain advantage in the battlefield. Some army doctors were instructed to lead a biological unit which was eventually run by Colonel Shiro Ishii, a PhD from Kyoto University. Soon after receiving this post, he was sent to Europe and America for two years (1928-30) to study the latest advances in biological research and returned to establish his base in Pingfang, in Manchuria. After the Japanese invasion of this region in 1931, it was thought to be the ideal location for a research laboratory, both because of its relative distance from Japan and the “inexpensive” Chinese lives for experimentation. By June 1938, Colonel Ishii had 3,000 Japanese working for unit 731, whose base in Pingfang occupied an area of 32 square kilometres. In the period covering October 1940 to January 1941, Japan repeatedly attacked China with a variety of germs, especially the plague bacteria. The procedure used to release the agent was always spraying the target zone by airplane. As a result of these raids, hundreds of casualties were reported, not to mention the side effects among the survivors.
After the war, Colonel Ishii was declared dead by the Japanese press, but he was indeed alive and, along with his research colleagues, underwent interrogation by US officers. Some veiled details about experimentation on live prisoners were then known. The human subjects included not only the local Chinese, but also Soviets, Koreans, Mongolians and Allied soldiers –mainly Americans, though there were British and Australians, too. The US and British governments were well informed by the Chinese ambassador of these war atrocities, which violated the Geneva convention of 1925 against the use of chemical and biological warfare (1). Yet, unlike the Nazi scientists and doctors, the Japanese were given protection in return for their priceless information. Since the USSR was also informed of the experiments, the US hastened to secure some knowledge which was to be essential for the upcoming superpower contest. However, as will be demonstrated later, the Americans relied so much on such biological superiority that the Soviets launched a vast research program not uncovered until the late 1980s.
The Soviet work on biowarfare remained virtually unknown to the western world until the defection of its two leading microbiologists: Vladimir Pasechnik, to Great Britain in 1989 and Kanatjan Alibekov, now Ken Alibek, to the US in 1992. It was only then that the real importance of the huge Soviet research on biowarfare, which was suspected but largely underestimated, was disclosed. The Iron Curtain had effectively protected the Soviets from western peeping into nuclear as well as chemical and biological strategy, but whereas the former was occasionally seen during the Cold War period, germs became the real ace in the arsenal of the USSR. In fact, the revelations by the two defectors showed a formidable advance in the handling of microbes, certainly an essential obstacle to the proliferation of bioweapons. It appears that Pasechnik’s leak became most inconvenient and he was found dead officially from a stroke. However, some sources point at him being poisoned with mercury. His decease coincided with a set of mysterious deaths of renowned microbiologists worldwide (Saxon 2001, Thomas 2003, Baranov et al. 2009).
According to Alibek, who wrote a book exposing the reality behind the Soviet program, the Biopreparat started in 1973, shortly after the USSR had signed the Biological and Toxic Weapons Convention of 1972 (Alibek 1998). It consisted of a series of facilities dedicated to the development of bioweapons and vaccines for existing diseases. So, it can be said that this research program met the two conventional sides of scientific investigation: the good and the evil. On the one hand, they had the technology and ability to make vaccines for diseases which killed, and still kill thousands of people, especially in poor countries. On the other, they were capable of creating the most destructive biological agents ever known, aimed for use against the same individuals they allegedly wanted to save from epidemics. Actually, with the blooming of genetic engineering in the late nineteen-eighties, the Soviets could modify microbes to make them more resistant to vaccines and even blend them into a sort of biological chimera which killed fast and clean. Luckily, such weapons were never used.
Amongst Biopreparat’s achievements, Pasechnik’s modified variant of Yersinia Pestis, the Black Death bacteria, stands out (Preston 1998: 57). Whereas the plague can be treated nowadays with antibiotics, thus preventing the damage previously done by the disease, this new strain was engineered to be resistant to any known antibiotic. Since the Black Death is airborne, the new intractable bug could easily spread through a pandemic impossible to eradicate. Only a whim of Mother Nature could prevent the pandemic from wiping human life of the earth. The situation could have been much worse than the medieval one, both because of the sturdy agent and the communications network, which was incipient in the first Black Death pandemic, but could boost a hypothetical second one. Moreover, in the early nineties, the Soviets had the technology to dry the germ into spores, which could be stored ready for loading into intercontinental missiles (Preston 1998: 55). Thus, the disease could be sent practically anywhere in the world. As regards Alibek, he directed a research team at the Stepnagorsk bioweapons facility, which developed a kind of bioweaponised anthrax four times stronger than the original germ. This powerful agent became part of the Soviet biological arsenal in 1989.
With the disappearance of the USSR, Russia took over the biological inheritance. Thus, according to Alibek, an engineered strain of smallpox and VEE (Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis) was developed between 1990 and 1991 (2). The VEE is a brain virus which is generally not lethal, but its combination with a highly infective virus, for which there is but a small amount of vaccine doses since its official eradication in 1977, sounds truly insane. Furthermore, a new strain of Marburg was enhanced, dried into biological powder and made into inhalable dust. The scientist who performed the improvement, Dr. Ustinov, was infected and died. His terrible death only helped Soviet scientists realise the incredible virulence of this new strain, which was named
variant U after his unfortunate discoverer. Although it was tested on monkeys and proved to be extremely lethal, Alibek states that it never became part of the Soviet-Russian biological arsenal, which nevertheless boasted Pasechnik’s Black Death, Alibekov’s anthrax and powdered smallpox (Preston 1998: 56). By the time of his defection, Alibek knew that there was work to recombine the genes of smallpox and Ebola into Ebolapox (3). Although there is no confirmation that the experiment was successful, almost two decades later and with the new advances in genetic engineering, it does not seem too far-fetched.
Far from the simplistic idea that this sort of experimentation is a matter of non-western countries, the unquestionable leader of the western world, the United States, equally has a long biowarfare record. Despite the partial vision of some American writers about the terrible Biopreparat, there have also been cases of US biological dangers. The annals of American biological tests on unknowing or unwitting humans begin in 1900, when US doctors in the Philippines infected five prisoners with plague and twenty-nine with beriberi. Only two casualties are known but, as usual in this kind of experimentation, there could have been other unreported ones. In 1915, another doctor produced Pellagra in 12 Mississippi prisoners, supposedly to find a cure for the disease (Sky Highway 2008). Still, one of the most significant personalities in the American secret program is Dr. Cornelius Rhoads, a scientist working for the Rockefeller Institute for Medical Investigations. In 1931, this physician consciously infected Puerto Rican subjects with cancer cells. The results of his experimentation ended in thirteen known deaths. What is worse, concerning this country and its inhabitants, Dr. Rhoads once declared that “what the island needs is not public health work, but a tidal wave or something to totally exterminate its population” (Golshan 2002, Democratic Underground 2005). When the whole affair was discovered, the doctor had to undergo a criminal investigation which acquitted him of the deaths of his patients on account of alleged insanity. Nevertheless, the doctor took charge of the US Atomic Energy Commission and continued his experiments by radiating unwilling prisoners, hospital patients and soldiers, mostly of Puerto Rican origin.
In 1932, two hundred poor black men with syphilis were studied but never treated for their disease. They were never told that they were sick and as many as a hundred of them died. Obviously, the families of these men also became infected and suffered direct or indirect consequences. The government agency that conducted the experiment eventually became the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 1940, a similar experiment was performed in Chicago on 400 prisoners, most of whom were black. They were infected with malaria and told that they were helping the army to find a proper cure to the disease. They were not given enough information about the disease and it is not clear if they really agreed to take part in the test (Health News Network 1998).
In 1950, there came a substantial change in the policy followed by the US army when it was decided to test biological agents directly on civilians. The first experiment took place in San Francisco, where the US navy sprayed a large amount of Serratia Marcescens, a bacterium causing a pneumonia-like illness (The Federation of American Scientists 2000). Although the military declared that it was a harmless agent, a number of citizens came down with the disease and, at least one of them died as a direct consequence of the operation. Similar experiments involving different bacterial agents were carried out in several American and Canadian cities in the fifties and sixties. A significant one was performed in the New York City subway, where an unspecified bacterium was released to test the effect of an agent in a major city transport system. In spite of the serious danger, the research was justified by the great number of subways in the former Soviet Union, Europe and South America (Beam and Sparacino 2003: 527). Between 1956 and 1957, the American army started experimenting with yellow fever and dengue. In Savannah, Georgia and Avon Park, Florida, millions of mosquitoes infected with the diseases were delivered to test the efficacy of these insects to act as vectors of transmission. Amongst the symptoms of the hundreds of victims, there were respiratory distress, stillbirths, encephalitis and typhoid, which caused many deaths. The Army researchers disguised themselves as public health workers to have direct access to the victims, who had to endure a series of photographs and tests along with the characteristic symptoms of the disease (Blum 2000: 150-1, Health News Network 1998).
Likewise, the Korean War became the perfect scenario to continue with the work started by Colonel Ishii some twenty years earlier. Although there has been continuous denial by the American administration, several investigators report the use of biological warfare by the 581
st ARC Wing against the North Koreans and Chinese (Cockburn and St. Clair 1998, Endicott and Hagerman 1999). The methods of delivery included infected insects, paper packets, cylinders and other objects. These eventually resulted in mosquitoes and fleas carrying yellow fever, propaganda leaflets spiked with cholera and feathers carrying anthrax bacteria. Even the usual “chaff,” a radar countermeasure, was used to spray the enemy target with a disease.
From then onwards, and although it cannot be materially proved, the Americans seem to have been involved in many other covert biological attacks in several countries. Between 1980 and 1981, many Haitian male refugees incarcerated in Miami and Puerto Rico developed “gynecomasia,” an unusual case in which males grow female breasts. It was later discovered that they had been given hormone injections without their knowledge (Cockburn and St. Clair 1998).
Cuban leader Fidel Castro has repeatedly blamed the CIA for the epidemics of swine fever, dengue and thrips palmi –an insect that kills palm trees and other crops– which befell his country in 1971, 1981 and 1996, respectively (Blum 2000: 143-4, Carus 2001: 174). Also, in 1984, during CIA’s war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, a strange epidemic of dengue hit the capital Managua, where the virus was unknown. The outbreak coincided with a series of low-level reconnaissance flights over the city (Cockburn and St. Clair 1998).
Another country with at least two cases of research into biological warfare is Great Britain. In the colonial era, the British Empire seems to have used smallpox against the Native Americans during the British-French War. Although it is difficult to prove, the British soldiers may have given the Indians blankets impregnated with smallpox. Thus, the disease devastated the native community, who were thought by the British to be helping the French and whose immune system was totally unprepared to face this emergent malady (Fenner et al.: 239). Likewise, during World War II, when the British knew about the successful experiments by the Japanese on Asian and Allies POWs, they decided to start their own biological program fearing that their enemies would gain an advantage in this field. This was basically focused on anthrax, which was to be delivered by a standard bomb, and the place chosen for testing was the island of Gruinard, off the coast of Scotland. The data gathered was later used both by British and Americans to develop more effective ways of dispersing anthrax spores. Since the place was thought to be far enough from the main land, few special measures were taken. This idea was soon proved wrong when an outbreak of anthrax in sheep and cattle on the coast of Scotland in 1943 was directly connected to the testing (BBC 2001a, 2001b).
It has recently become known that South Africa ran a BW program during the 1980s and early 1990s, which was originally conceived for defensive purposes only but which, in reality, equally had an offensive component. Dr. Outer Bassoon, an army-trained doctor who was also the personal heart specialist to former President P.W. Botha, headed this program, whose code name was Project Coast. It developed both chemical and biological weapons to be used against the black population, especially toxins aimed at political targets. South Africa may have provided the government troops of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) with anthrax and cholera to fight the rebel soldiers in the guerrilla war during the late 1970s. In 1979, there was a large outbreak of anthrax in this country, which killed 82 people, and thousands became ill. Despite the coincidence, investigations are still being carried out to prove whether South Africa was directly involved. After the disappearance of the organisation with the arrival of President de Klerk, many scientists were dismissed and some fled to other countries with BW programs. In this respect, Dr. Basson was often seen in Libya until international pressure forced his re-admittance by the South African administration to keep him under control. As of today, Basson still retains his post in the army and South Africa continues to have a BW program, allegedly for defensive purposes only (Nuclear Threat Initiative 2007).
Leaving aside the major powers, certain other countries are suspected of having BW programs, which would provide cheap access to mass-destruction weapons. Although no government would openly state their research on such unethical arts of war and contrary to the Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, ratified by 143 countries to date, the evidence supplied by international espionage is undeniable. Thus, reports by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (2000) and the US Department of Defense (2000) enumerate a long list of nations, some of which are hostile to western democracies, with BW capabilities. Trusting American and Israeli sources, the Canadians mention undeclared offensive programs in Iran, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Syria, China, North Korea and Taiwan. Other countries under suspicion are Egypt, Vietnam, Laos, Cuba, Romania and Bulgaria. Special attention must be paid to Iran, Iraq and Libya; three countries which have signed, but not ratified, the 1972 BW Convention. The first began its program in the early 1980s producing many different agents. Some Iranian universities and research organisations seem to be involved in the project. It is thought that they have weaponised anthrax and botulism, which could be delivered through Scud missiles and Sukhoi attack aircraft. The Iraqis, however, brazenly admitted in August 1995 to having produced large quantities of botulism, anthrax, and aflatoxin, a biological agent causing cancer. Moreover, they loaded Scud missile warheads and aerial bombs with these agents and conducted research on several infectious viruses. Although most of their BW facilities were destroyed during the two Gulf Wars and the Iraqis themselves publicly proclaimed the destruction of their biological arsenal, largely underestimated by the western armies, it is still suspected that this is not the case. Some Iraqi biologists appear to be hidden in Sudan, Libya and Algeria, where they could be helping local scientists to launch their respective BW programs (4). Furthermore, even if the Iraqi arsenal had really been eradicated, their BW machine could be ready again in a matter of weeks.
As regards Libya, it seems that, although there is research, their BW program is still at an early stage. However, there have been attempts to recruit South African, Iraqi and Romanian scientists and obtain the technology necessary to grow anthrax and botulism. With the help of these experts, it is thought that they could easily turn their research program into a program of weaponised agents very soon. It is also known that a number of these countries have tempted former Soviet scientists to collaborate in their biological research. Nowadays in the chaos of Russia, it is not difficult to find impoverished biologists ready to flee penury in search of a better life. One such country is Iran, which has sent officials to offer enormous quantities of money to researchers. Although it seems that most of them have declined the offer, Russian biologists divulged to The New York Times that at least five of their colleagues accepted the tempting deal (Miller and Broad 1998) (5). Other countries are also suspected of having done the same. In order to frustrate these underhand manoeuvres, the United States government has given the Russians very generous donations. The official reason, though, is either the conversion of old facilities or the creation of new ones for civilian use. The main priority seems to be the development of vaccines against precisely those diseases, which shaped the Soviet biological arsenal not so long ago. However, there are serious suspicions that the money could help rebuild the dubiously dismantled Biopreparat (Miller 2000).


1. A copy of the text can be downloaded from the
Department of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford: Retrieved 22 December 2008.

2. As Richard Preston recalls:
"Russia has researched the genetic alteration of smallpox," Alibek told me. "In 1990 and 1991, we engineered a smallpox at Vector. It was found that several areas of the smallpox genome" -- the DNA -- "can be used for the introduction of some foreign genetic material. The first development was smallpox and VEE. VEE, or Venezuelan equine encephalitis, is a brain virus. It causes a severe headache and near-coma, but it is generally not lethal. Alibek said that the researchers spliced VEE into smallpox. The result was a recombinant chimera virus. In ancient Greek myth, the chimera was a monster made from parts of different animals. Recombination means the mixing of genes from different organisms. "It is called smallpox-VEE chimera," Alibek said. It could also be called Veepox. Under a microscope, Alibek said, the Veepox looks like smallpox, but it isn't. (1998: 63)

3. Once again, Richard Preston points out that:
More recently, Alibek claims, the Vector researchers may have created a recombinant Ebola-smallpox chimera. One could call it Ebolapox. Ebola virus uses the molecule RNA for its genetic code, whereas smallpox uses DNA. Alibek believes that the Russian researchers made a DNA copy of the disease-causing parts of Ebola, then grafted them into smallpox. Alibek said he thinks that the Ebolapox virus is stable -- that is, that it will replicate successfully in a test tube or in animals -- which means that, once created, Ebolapox will live forever in a laboratory, and will not uncreate itself. Thus a new form of life may have been brought into the world.
"The Ebolapox could produce the form of smallpox called blackpox," Alibek says. Blackpox, sometimes known as hemorrhagic smallpox, is the most severe type of smallpox disease. In a blackpox infection, the skin does not develop blisters. Instead, the skin becomes dark all over. Blood vessels leak, resulting in severe internal hemorrhaging. Blackpox is invariably fatal. "As a weapon, the Ebolapox would give the hemorrhages and high mortality rate of Ebola virus, which would give you a blackpox, plus the very high contagiousness of smallpox," Alibek said. (1998: 63)

4. The Canadian Security Intelligence Service gives credit to a US House of Representatives task force, which reported in February 1998 that “Iraqi BW experts had been dispersed in Sudan, Libya, and Algeria” (2000: 3)

5. Miller and Broad’s article, published on 8 December 1998, would confirm Ken Alibek’s confession to Richard Preston that same year:

Ken Alibek is part of a diaspora of biologists who came out of Russia following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Government funding for research decreased dramatically, and scientists who were working in the biowarfare program found themselves without jobs. Some of them went looking abroad. A few have come to the United States or Great Britain, but most went elsewhere. "No one knows where they are," Alibek says. One can guess that they've ended up in Iraq, Syria, Libya, China, Iran, perhaps Israel, perhaps India -- but no one really knows, probably not even the Russian government. No doubt some of these biologists have carried the Alibekov formula in their heads, if not master seed strains of the anthrax and samples of the finished product in containers. The Alibekov anthrax may be one of the more common bioweapons in the world today. It seems plausible that Iraqi biologists, for instance, know the Alibekov formula by now. (1998: 52)

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