What started biological warfare

The biological war could first take place in agriculture

The foot-and-mouth disease in Britain has made it clear what the future may hold in store

When one speaks of the risks that biological weapons can pose, one primarily thinks of pathogens that have been sharpened by breeding or genetic engineering and that can be directly dangerous to humans themselves. But if you look at the history of the biological war, you will not only find that the biological war against crops and animals has always been in the foreground, but also that one of the first weapons to be bred in the laboratories was just is the causative agent of the epidemic, from which Great Britain is still not completely free and which at least partially demonstrates the extent of a targeted attack with biological weapons on animals or crops.

First the mad cow disease and then above all the outbreak of the foot-and-mouth disease in Great Britain, which spread there in a flash and spread to other countries, have vividly demonstrated how dangerous a pathogen intentionally exposed as a biological weapon could be with a comparable rate of spread . No people have to die directly, but there are major economic burdens that can continue to have an effect for a long time. The direct costs of killing and disposing of millions of animals, disinfecting farms, customs and border controls, among others, are significant.

In contrast to any attempt to infect people with pathogens, this is much easier with animals and plants in agriculture and also less dangerous for the perpetrators. There are hardly any protective measures here - and thanks to intensive farming, but above all to factory farming, a contagious pathogen such as foot-and-mouth disease could quickly achieve great effects. Farms that keep several hundred cattle, several hundred thousand pigs or millions of chickens are no longer uncommon. There are farms in the United States that keep hundreds of thousands of cattle: an ideal place to start an epidemic. It is possible that the successful infection of an animal would be enough to cause a foot-and-mouth disease, which cannot be stopped thanks to the many animal transports.

It has been suggested that the pathogen may have been introduced into the UK through the illegal import of meat from Asia. Asian restaurants are to blame for this. Remains were then fed to British pigs. Some companies were still allowed to do this at the time. But regardless of the real cause, it might have been enough to infect a few sheep, pigs or cattle by mixing pathogens with them to cause an epidemic ...

Since the terrorist attacks in September and the threat of retaliation, the fear of attacks with biological weapons has been fueled again (biopanic). It really flared up during the Gulf War and mainly in the US after it, after it was discovered that Iraq was running a major biological weapons upgrade program, but also when it became clear that, according to reports from Kanatjan Alibekov, director of Biopreparat, in the former Soviet Union dangerous pathogens have been researched for a long time. Since then there has been fear that the US military superiority could drive hostile states and terrorists to use "asymmetric" weapons.

Experiments with biological weapons by the AUM sect

So far, even the most bloodthirsty rulers have used biological weapons with great caution, firstly because they are difficult to spread effectively and, secondly, they could endanger their own people. And the fact that sects like the Japanese AUM have not only been successful, which not only carried out the attack on the subway with the poison gas sarin, but also experimented with biological weapons, should not lead to the fact that it will stay that way. Smallpox might be comparable in terms of effectiveness for humans to foot-and-mouth disease. They have been officially declared extinct since the late 1970s, and samples that have not yet been destroyed are officially only available in Russia (Biopreparat in Novosibirsk) and the USA (CDC in Atlanta). If another epidemic broke out, people would no longer be protected and there would be too few vaccines to really prevent the spread.

However, AUM has shown that it is not easy for a terrorist group to manufacture and use biological weapons, even with enough money, commitment and experts. The sect wanted to kill large crowds with botulinum and anthrax. In 1993 the sect tried to spray anthrax spores from an eight-story building in Tokyo without anyone getting sick. Botulinum toxin was sprayed on roads near two American air force bases. It is believed, however, that the sect bred and used a false strain of C. botulinum. In Zaire one tried in vain to get hold of the Ebola virus. The sect had also bought 500,000 acres of land in Australia to conduct experiments there. Even from this failure, imitators could not necessarily be convinced that such attacks are in vain, but that they are directed towards other targets, such as animals.

However, AUM does not only stand for the willingness to use biological pathogens. In 1984 the Bagwan sect in Oregon was already growing several pathogens in a biological laboratory, including Salmonella typhirium, and introduced them to salad dressings from 10 large restaurants. The aim of the attack was to override as many voters in the county as possible in order to increase the chances for one's own candidates. Over 700 people contracted salmonella. The sect had ordered the pathogens from the American Tissue Type Culture (ATTC) collection point, which later came back into the talk because they had delivered anthrax samples to Iraq in 1995 and plague pathogens to the right-wing extremist Larry Harris in Ohio, who had a sample in 1998 was arrested by anthrax bacteria. There are hundreds of such collection points worldwide that sell samples of many pathogens - sometimes via the Internet. Evidence that they are needed for research purposes is often not even required.

Who is to blame for the foot-and-mouth disease?

If one were susceptible to conspiracy theories, one could have made a possibly obvious connection between the renewed bombing by British and American fighter jets of Iraqi air defense systems on February 16 and the start of the foot-and-mouth disease on February 19 in Great Britain. The Pan-Asian virus was first detected in India in 1990, the FAO reports. Since then it has "successfully" spread over the Middle East to Europe, but also to Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan and is found in sheep, pigs, cattle, deer, buffalo, camels, goats and antelopes. This virus appeared in Iraq from 1996-97.

It is known that in Iraq not only biological weapons were developed against humans such as botulinus, plague or anthrax, but also those that were directed against animals and plants. For example, they have produced large quantities of aflatoxin, a bacterial plant poison that can be put in bombs to be thrown over wheat fields, but also camelpox. The pathogens of the foot-and-mouth disease, which is part of the standard repertoire of biological weapons because it can spread so quickly, were also cultivated. It is always difficult to determine whether such pathogens are being researched to ward off epidemics or whether it is research into the development of biological weapons (dispute over the restart of a laboratory for the foot-and-mouth disease in Iraq).

The boundaries are already blurred in the production of pathogens, which makes everything very difficult. After all, vaccines, for example, can be used in the ostensible context of defensive research not only in the event of an enemy attack, but also as protection for one's own troops when they themselves use a biological weapon. It can also be difficult to determine whether it is actually an attack or another epidemic that has broken out. For example, due to new types of pathogens that have not previously occurred in a region, it is not possible to draw conclusions about an attack. The globalization of traffic flows enables pathogens to rapidly spread geographically, and changes in ecological niches through environmental destruction or agricultural development can lead to pathogens looking for new hosts. The American Center for Disease Control and Prevention says 80 percent of diseases caused by food are due to viruses or other pathogens that have not yet been identified. So can it be ruled out with convincing certainty that the FMD outbreak in Great Britain could not also be traced back to the planned infection of animals?

Epidemics have always been seen differently, but especially since the rise of biotechnology and genetic engineering. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) responsible for epidemics therefore have a section on their website that tries to clear up rumors. The so-called Gulf War Syndrome has shown how quickly a conglomerate of threats, rumors, secrecy strategies and combat can lead to difficult situations. In 1998, many members of the US military refused to be vaccinated against anthrax. Many people who had been vaccinated claimed they had health problems from the vaccination, groups like the Citizen Soldier warned against vaccination because it was viewed as preparation for a biological war, while groups from the right-wing feared the US government would want it thereby weaken the troops. All of this points not only to the latent fear that already exists, but also to the difficulties that would arise if a dangerous epidemic broke out and mass vaccinations were to become necessary.

In the case of foot-and-mouth disease in Iraq, the US has been charged with spreading foot-and-mouth disease in Iraq as a biological weapon in 1999, when another nationwide outbreak occurred. The CIA is held to be indirectly guilty of this. The UN weapons inspectors at UNSCOM, who had been infiltrated by the CIA, had destroyed the laboratory in Al Manal in 1993, in which vaccines against FMD were produced. So much vaccine could have been produced here that the farmers could vaccinate their animals three times a year. The facility was dismantled by UNSCOM because it was suspected that biological weapons were being manufactured here. From this it can already be seen that biological weapons - in this they resemble the much-invoked infowar - can lead to uncertainty even in the form of rumors. In 1997, for example, Cuba turned to the UN and accused the United States of using biological weapons that had been sprayed on an airplane. A year later, a Florida scientist again accused Cuba of using biological weapons. The CIA was unable to confirm this claim, but was happy to take care of the criticism from Cuba.

A Brief History of Bioweapons

The history of biological weapons that were used and developed against animals and plants of the enemy goes back a long way. For example, poisoning drinking water wells with cadavers is an old strategy. The first climax of the biological war occurred in the 14th century, from the 20th century and the First World War a new development begins, which with the knowledge of genetic research and the means of genetic engineering will probably only really have a real impact in our century, if not quickly and a comprehensive, globally recognized and effectively monitorable agreement is concluded that prohibits the production, storage and use of biological agents.

It is also believed that the plague could have been introduced into Europe by a perfidious attack, or at least it accelerated its spread in the early days of globalization. Until the beginning of the 14th century, the plague had only spread in Asia, which was probably originally endemic to marmots in today's Turkestan and apparently did not spread to the nomads living there. Due to any disturbance of the ecology, be it earthquakes or social changes, the epidemic began to spread to rats and humans. As it is today, "globalization" played a decisive role, because the pathogens moved along with the goods, animals and merchants. At least the Great Silk Road, which connected China with Europe and on which traffic has increased more and more, went through the region of the rodents afflicted by the plague. Posts and cities sprung up along the streets - and apparently the sedentary and closely packed city dwellers were also more susceptible to the plague than the nomads.

In the 14th century, the Tartars besieged the Black Sea Kaffa (today: Theodosia), a city on the Silk Road, founded by the Genoese in 1266. Janiberg, the leader of the so-called Golden Horde, then had some corpses catapulted over the city walls with the plague. Even if the residents immediately threw the infected bodies into the sea, the plague spread. People and probably rats from the city came on ships into the Genoese's large trading network and thus brought the Black Death to Italy and ultimately to all of Europe. It is believed that by 1420 the population of Western Europe decreased to a third of the people who lived here 100 years earlier. In cities and villages, up to 80 percent of the population died of the Black Death. As always when it comes to epidemics, rumors about the origin also emerged. For example, Jews in Europe or people of different faiths in the Ottoman Empire were held responsible for the plague and persecuted.

During the First World War, the site of many innovations and also the conduct of war with chemical weapons, the Germans tried to use anthrax spores and snot against the Allies' draft animals, riding horses and animals used for food in order to disrupt the transport and supply of the troops. Research was also carried out with ricin, a very toxic protein found in castor beans. Recently, at the exhibition "Black Death and Amikäfer", a piece of sugar contaminated with anthrax was shown that Russian soldiers had found on a Finnish agent. Even if, after the First World War, the Geneva Agreement of 1925 sought to outlaw the use of chemical and biological weapons in war, the history of the deliberate use of bacteria, viruses, fungi and other pathogens and toxins had only just begun.

During the Second World War, even after Hitler's explicit ban in 1942, experiments were mainly carried out with foot-and-mouth disease as well as with Colorado beetles and other pests. Field tests have also been carried out in Russia in which FMD pathogens were sprayed onto cattle and reindeer from an airplane - allegedly with great success. The Colorado beetles were distributed over a field near Speyer. The French were also interested in the development of biological weapons and, in addition to the causative agent of rinderpest, mainly concentrated on Colorado beetles. Japan not only experimented with biological weapons such as cholera, plague or typhus against people in China, but also investigated the possible uses of fungi, bacteria and other pests on cereals and vegetables in Manchuria and Siberia. Between 1940 and 1941, anthrax, infected wheat grains and cotton seeds were also distributed from the air.

In Great Britain, the Microbiology Warfare Committee had already completed the first report on the use of anthrax and foot-and-mouth disease in 1937. Among other things, 5 million biscuits with anthrax were made for cows that they wanted to spread by plane. This is probably where the greatest research effort was made into means that can be used against crops. An island that was contaminated with anthrax for training purposes in the early 1940s is still contaminated today. The Americans also developed some biological weapons as early as World War II, such as mushrooms against wheat, rinderpest and, of course, FMD. Towards the end of the war, the Americans even considered using a mushroom to destroy Japanese rice fields, but abandoned it again. In addition to the USA, the Soviet Union in particular continued to develop biological weapons against plants and animals after the World War. Several field trials with infectious agents have also been carried out in the USA and bombs, sprayers or underwater mines have been developed to release the pathogens. In 1969, President Nixon stopped research on biological weapons, but not the development of defensive weapons.

In the Soviet Union, however, research continued, where there was also an accident in 1979 in an armaments factory in Yekaterinburg with anthrax spores.The fact that the pathogen came from the biological weapons laboratory was shown, among other things, by the death strip, which resulted from the prevailing wind direction and in which people and animals fell ill and died. It was later found out to be four different strains of bacteria that were resistant to antibiotics. Anthrax is so popular because the dried spores, shielded from sunlight, can be kept ready for use for up to 100 years.

In the Soviet Union, many thousands of scientists have researched hundreds of pathogens over many years in order to develop them into effective biological weapons. Although the research was officially discontinued, it is still unknown whether it is not being carried out in secret by the military, whether "armed" pathogens have not been sold to interested parties and whether some of the scientists who have become unemployed may not share their knowledge with other countries for good pay or make them available to organizations. The research center for virology and biotechnology in Novosibirsk not only researched smallpox, Ebola, Marburg or Lassa and tried to develop them into biological weapons, more than 20,000 different virus and bacterial samples are said to be stored here under very unsafe conditions. Probably the most extensive research program into the development of biological weapons against plants and animals was also carried out in the Soviet Union. It is known that people have experimented with FMD, rinderpest, African swine fever and avian influenza. For example, FMD was successfully transmitted by ticks or insects were used to bring pathogens to plants.

The black biology

With the genetic engineering means available today, viruses or bacteria can probably be made far more dangerous and untreatable than before. "Black biology" has only just begun. The basis for this is the further sequencing of the genome of pathogens. The genomes of Vibrio cholerae or the bacteria that cause anthrax, plague or typhoid have already been published. Molecular biologist Steven Block, a member of the JASON group, which advises the US government on scientific issues, wrote in American Scientist: "Bacteria and viruses can now be made to be qualitatively different from conventional bioweapons. Belongs from a bioweapons perspective to the fact that they can be equipped with "desired" properties such as safer handling, higher virulence, improved possibilities for attacking the host, more difficult to identify and easier distribution. " In this way, "binary" biological weapons can be developed that are only fatal if the two components come together. Targeted modifications of genes or organisms could be made. And if you have developed a good vector for gene therapy in order to introduce genes into the body in a targeted manner, that could also be used for the introduction of pathogenic genes. It would be possible to create "stealth viruses" that infect the targets, but the infection does not break out until a trigger is activated. And of course you could not only change organisms, but also create new diseases.

Australian scientists showed at the beginning of the year that "black biology" does not wait in the future. In fact, Ron Jackson and Ian Ramshaw had only tried to genetically modify a virus to produce a means against the reproduction of mice. The surprising result was that the mice's immune system was then overridden. To do this, they introduced a gene that is responsible for the production of large amounts of interleukin-4 in a smallpox virus, a usually mild infectious disease that causes paw swelling and necrosis. Interleukin 4 is a cytokine that stimulates T helper cells, which in turn stimulate the body's immune response. The virus was simply the vehicle to smuggle the proteins it contained into the body in order to trigger the antibody reaction. However, the genetically modified virus led to the cell-mediated immune reaction, i.e. the attack by T cells on infected cells, being completely suppressed. In a very similar way, smallpox viruses can also be converted into deadly biological weapons, warn the scientists (Tödliche Biowaffe).

Of course, in the age of globalization and factory farming, no biological weapons attacks are necessary to trigger animal diseases. Not only is FMD one of the most contagious infections, it's always around somewhere. This also applies to swine fever, because of which 10 million pigs were only killed in Holland in 1997. But the use of biological weapons could also begin in a completely different way, for example as a fight against the cultivation of plants that are used to produce intoxicants. And here we have come a long way towards using biological weapons within the framework of (or under the guise of) the fight against crime, and thus the agreement on the prohibition of biological weapons, which is only a paper tiger, even before a protocol on control mechanisms may be introduced this year is supplemented to undermine.

On the basis of research results from the former Soviet Union, the USA had "officially" attempted to "convince" the Colombian government to use a mushroom against coca plants through a large aid package. At Washington's initiative, research on the fungus Fusarium ocysporum was even funded by the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP). Admittedly, in this context one does not speak of biological weapons, but of "green agents", although here too the boundaries between biological weapons and plant destruction are fluid. For the time being, the Colombian government has decided to stop spraying the mushroom, mainly due to pressure from neighboring countries (drug control or biological war?).

It would now be urgently necessary to finally supplement the "Agreement on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Storage of Biological Weapons" from 1972 with control mechanisms. One of the measures planned over years of negotiations is the international investigation of "suspicious" disease outbreaks that could be the result of a biological weapon attack or an accident in a biological weapons laboratory. Every year there are thousands of epidemics affecting humans, animals and plants. The negotiations recently failed again (victory of the arms industry), mainly due to the concerns of the US government.

However, even with such an additional protocol, the problem could still not be resolved if an attack leaves no suspicious evidence, for example the pathogens can occur naturally and are not genetically modified. The British FMD epidemic could theoretically have been both: the result of an attack or self-inflicted triggering of an epidemic. In the age of biology, malicious viruses are weapons that can also be used negligently. The biggest problem is that, like the resources in computer technology, the systems, processes and materials used for biotechnology are always suitable for "dual use". Any laboratory can also be a bioweapons manufacturing facility. If one does not directly infect individual cows or animals on a farm, the active ingredients could be spread relatively inconspicuously with spray planes or other sprayers, as are common in agriculture. And the warfare agents are naturally occurring organisms. (Florian Rötzer)

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