OF DR. KENNETH ALIBEK
weapons are weapons of mass destruction (or mass casualty weapons,
to be precise, since they do not damage nonliving entities) that
are based on bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, fungi, or toxins produced
by living organisms. Compared
to nuclear, chemical, or conventional weapons, biological weapons
are unique in their diversity.
Dozens of different agents can be used to make a biological
weapon, and each agent will produce a markedly different effect.
These differences are shaped by various properties of the
particular agent, such as its contagiousness, the length of time
after release that it survives in the environment, the dose required
to infect a victim, and of course the type of disease that the agent
weapons are relatively inexpensive and easy to produce.
Although the most sophisticated and effective versions require
considerable equipment and scientific expertise, primitive versions
can be produced in a small area with minimal equipment by someone
with limited training.
Biological weapons can be deployed in three ways:
by contaminating food or water supplies; releasing infected
vectors, such as mosquitoes or fleas; or creating an aerosol cloud
to be inhaled by the victims.
Since industrialized countries have adequate water purification
systems, contamination of the water supply is the least effective
method for disseminating a biological weapon in such countries.
Contamination of food supplies would most likely be used
in a terrorist attack, since it is difficult to contaminate enough
food to gain a military advantage.
Release of infected vectors is not particularly efficient
for either military or terrorist purposes and entails a high probability
of affecting those producing the weapons or living nearby.
far, the most effective mode for applying biological weapons is
an aerosol cloud. Such
a cloud is made up of microscopic particles and is therefore invisible.
It can be produced in several ways, most of which involve
either an explosion (some type of bomb) or spraying (usually involving
a special nozzle on a spray tank).
The effectiveness of the cloud is determined by numerous
factors, such as the amount of agent that survives the explosion
or spraying, and the wind and weather conditions outdoors or air
flow and ventilation indoors.
primary result of an effective aerosol cloud is simultaneous infections
among all those who were exposed to a sufficiently dense portion
of the cloud. If the agent is contagious, the disease will then spread.
In addition, agents that can survive for a long time in the
environment will eventually settle, contaminating the ground, buildings,
water and food sources, and so on.
In some cases, these sediments can form another dangerous
aerosol cloud if they are disturbed.
interest of terrorist groups in biological weapons is no surprise.
Biological weapons have a number of very attractive features
for terrorist uses. Their
killing power can approach that of nuclear weapons.
They are relatively inexpensive to make.
A small-scale biological weapons attack using a common disease
organism, such as tularemia or plague, can be masked as a natural
outbreak. The effects
of a biological weapons attack are not apparent for several days,
allowing the perpetrator time to vanish.
The raw material—disease-producing strains of microorganisms—is
fairly easy to obtain. And
the techniques and equipment that are used in ordinary biotechnology
research and production can be used for biological weapons.
interested in biological weapons are on the level of state-sponsored
terrorist organizations such as that of Osama bin Laden; on the
level of large, independent organizations such as Aum Shinrikyo;
or on the level of individuals acting alone or in concert with small
radical organizations. Although
these groups will produce biological weapons with varying levels
of sophistication, they all can potentially cause great damage.
While the most obvious damages are illness and death, other
potential results include panic; direct economic losses due to the
costs of medical care, decontamination and other forms of cleanup,
crowd control, and collateral agricultural damages such as animal
deaths; and indirect economic losses caused by a drop in tourism
and/or bans on farm exports from the target area.
there is no doubt that we will see future uses of biological weapons
by terrorist groups, as there have been several attempts already. One incident, in 1984, involved members of the Rajneeshee cult
contaminating restaurant salad bars in Oregon with salmonella, sickening
751 people. Another
involved the Aum Shinrikyo cult.
Although best known for its chemical attack in the Japanese
subway system in 1995, the cult also attempted to release anthrax
from the rooftop of a Tokyo building in 1993.
No casualties resulted, but had the cult better understood
cultivation of anthrax spores and urban air flow dynamics, the results
might have been quite different.
as illustrated by the difficulties Aum Shinrikyo experienced in
mounting a biological weapons attack, it is not true that anyone
who can brew beer can make a batch of biological weapons.
While someone with a strong background in microbiology could
certainly produce a crude biological weapon to affect a small number
of people and create panic, sophisticated weapons require sophisticated
terrorist groups, the most likely source of such knowledge would
be state-sponsored biological weapons programs, which have the financial
and scientific wherewithal to perfect production and deployment
techniques. Since the
Soviet Union and Russia had the most sophisticated and powerful
biological weapons program on earth, the former Soviet states present
a particular proliferation threat.
The tremendous knowledge amassed by former Soviet scientists
would be extremely useful to both military and terrorist organizations.
most people think of proliferation, they imagine weapons export.
In the case of biological weapons, they picture international
smuggling either of ready-made weapons material, or at least of
cultures of pathogenic microorganisms. However, this area of proliferation is of the least concern.
Even without such assistance, a determined organization could
obtain virulent strains of microorganisms from their natural reservoirs
(such as soil or animals), from culture libraries that provide such
organisms for research purposes, or by stealing cultures from legitimate
laboratories. To the
best of my knowledge, the Soviet Union and Russia have not exported
actual strains of microorganisms.
There are other types of biological weapons proliferation
that are of greater concern.
first involves experienced scientists traveling or moving abroad.
For example, there have been unconfirmed reports that scientists
from the Kirov facility visited North Korea in the early 1990s.
In addition, numerous scientists who used to work for the
Soviet biological weapons program are now living abroad.
Many of these scientists live in the West, but others have
gone to Iran and other countries where their expertise can be put
to nefarious use in state-run biological weapons programs.
second type of proliferation involves scientists from other countries
being brought to the proliferating country for training in biotechnology,
microbiology, and genetic engineering techniques. For years Moscow State University provided such training to
scientists from dozens of countries, including Cuba, North Korea,
Eastern Bloc nations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
third form of proliferation involves private companies selling scientific
expertise. For instance,
I have a flier from a company that advertises recombinant
bacteria with altered virulence genes.
Ostensibly, these organisms are being offered for vaccine
production; the flier also notes that they can be used as genetic
recipients and to create recombinant microorganisms of biologically
active agents. The
authors of the flier also express willingness to form cooperative
ventures to which they will contribute their genetic engineering
knowledge. The director
of this company used to work for the USSR’s biological weapons program.
A fourth type of proliferation occurs when the proliferating
country sells equipment that can be used in biological weapons production.
Such equipment is generally termed “dual-use”, as it can
be used for legitimate biotechnology production and for biological
weapons production. An
example of such proliferation is the planned sale by Russia of large
fermenters to Iraq after the Persian Gulf War.
Fortunately, the sale was not completed. I have no doubt that these fermenters were destined for use
in biological weapons production.
First of all, Iraq has used the guise of single-cell protein
production as a cover for biological weapons facilities in the past.
Second, the particular fermenter size involved in this proposed
sale would not be suitable for efficient single-cell protein production.
In fact, the resultant product would be prohibitively expensive.
Similarly, in 1990, Biopreparat was negotiating the sale
of dual-use equipment to Cuba as well.
The fifth kind of proliferation consists of published scientific
literature. Just by
reading scientific literature published in Russia in the last few
years, a biological weapons developer could learn techniques to
genetically engineer vaccinia virus and then transfer the results
to smallpox; to create antibiotic-resistant strains of anthrax,
plague, and glanders; and to mass-produce the Marburg and Machupo
viruses. Billions of
dollars that the Soviet Union and Russia put into biotechnology
research are available to anyone for the cost of a translator.
Given the current economic situation in the states of the
former Soviet Union, the incentive to sell equipment and knowledge
suitable for biological weapons production without regard to their
eventual use is great both for the government and for individual
scientists and businessmen.
The Russian government has long been short of funds, and
its biotechnology arena has also been adversely affected.
Many of its scientists are unemployed; those that are employed
are paid poorly or not at all. Some of them have been forced to turn to other lines of work,
such as street vending. It
is important for the international community to ensure that these
scientists have legitimate, decent-paying work to do in their fields.
The proliferation issue is particularly complex for biological
weapons. In many cases,
the same equipment and knowledge that can be used to produce biological
weapons can also be used to produce legitimate biotechnological
products such as vaccines and antibiotics.
Thus, we cannot outright forbid the export of most of the
relevant knowledge and equipment as we can with nuclear weapons.
And even if we did, such regulations would be practically
impossible to enforce.
I believe that we should strive for transparency in the
conduct of “dual-use” research and in the trade of cultures of pathogenic
microorganisms and sophisticated biotechnology equipment.
Clear international standards should regulate such trade.
Such regulations would entail bans on certain activity, such
as the sale of pathogenic microorganisms to individuals not associated
with legitimate research institutions—not with the assumption that
the ban would be enforceable, but to clearly delineate acceptable
conduct. The main focus
of the regulations, though, would be reporting requirements for
the sale or transfer of potentially dangerous cultures, genetic
material, or equipment. An
international organization would maintain the records of such transfers.
While export controls, international treaties and inspection
protocols, protective suits, and vaccines all play a role in defense
against biological weapons, none of these can eliminate the threat
Biological weapons are in essence a medical problem, and
thus require a medical solution.
The ultimate goal of bio-defense is to prevent suffering
and loss of life. If
biological weapons have minimal impact on the well-being of their
targets, they are ineffective and thus cease to be a threat.
Therefore, we must concentrate on developing appropriate
There are three main types of medical defense against biological
(administered before exposure), urgent prophylaxis (administered
after exposure, but before symptoms arise), and chemotherapy (administered
after onset of illness).
consists largely of vaccines but also includes certain drugs that
can be administered before exposure to prevent disease.
Use of pretreatment measures in bio-defense will be effective
only when all of the following conditions are met:
target population is known and limited, i.e. military troops within
range of an enemy’s arsenal, since it is not realistic to vaccinate
or provide drugs to everyone in the country.
is known precisely what biological agents are in the enemy’s biological
weapons arsenal, or the number of possible agents has been narrowed
down to a few, since it is impossible to vaccinate or provide drugs
against dozens of agents simultaneously.
for the agent has already been developed.
Note that for many biological agents, among them glanders,
melioidosis, Marburg virus, Ebola virus, and Lassa fever, no vaccine
exists; for most viral agents, no pretreatment exists.
biological agents used are not genetically altered strains that
are vaccine- or drug-resistant.
Clearly, pretreatment techniques are of very limited use.
Therefore, we cannot rely exclusively or even primarily on
pretreatment for medical bio-defense.
We must also ensure that means for urgent prophylaxis and
treatment of these diseases are available as well.
Of the existing drugs that could be useful in urgent prophylaxis
and treatment, many are not available in sufficient quantities;
some are no longer manufactured at all.
In addition, for many of the agents that can be used as biological
weapons, no drug treatment protocols exist.
must greatly increase our efforts
to develop new treatment and urgent prophylaxis techniques.
This should include new approaches, such as preparations
that can protect against and treat a wide variety of pathogens.
These efforts, as well as the funds spent on research and
development, will pay for themselves many times over.
In addition to contributing to preparedness for a biological
attack, they will provide a much-needed push in the treatment of
infectious diseases that occur under natural conditions.
Infectious diseases remain one of the leading causes of death
in the world and cause tremendous losses, in terms of both money
and human lives, every year.
Furthermore, such medical research will also contribute to
the treatment of noninfectious diseases, such as autoimmune disorders
The twenty-first century is anticipated to be the century
of biotechnology and information technology. This is a potent mix for future biological weapons development.
The rapid advances anticipated in microbiology, molecular
biology, and genetic engineering will improve our lives—but they
are all “dual-use” technologies that can be used in biological weapons
development. Our improved
knowledge of medicine and the functioning of the human body will
enable us to improve human health and quality of life—but can be
used to develop more sophisticated biological weapons.
The explosive growth of information technology means that
anyone with a computer has instantaneous access to tremendous amounts
of information—including techniques that can be used in biological
We cannot, and should not, halt the progress of science
and technology, but we must bear in mind that it is a double-edged
sword. To protect ourselves
from the threat of biological weapons, we must increase our awareness
and understanding of the threat, strengthen current international
agreements and increase transparency, and most importantly, develop
new medical means to render such weapons useless.