Germ Warfare

Germ Warfare

Germ warfare, also known as , is the use of pathogens (disease-causing agents) to terrorize a civilian population or obtain military advantage. The use of is banned under international law.

(Pathogenic agents are classified as unconventional weapons, a designation that also includes chemical and nuclear weapons). It has long been observed that plagues can wreak immense havoc among civilian populations and destroy morale; approximately one-quarter of Europe’s medieval population (25 million people) perished in the Black Death () between 1347 and 1351, for instance, and as many as 50 million died in the Spanish influenza pandemic of 1918–19. The Spanish Flu, which took more lives in four months than World War I did in four years, struck down so many German troops that some historians believe that it caused Kaiser Wilhelm to declare an end to the conflict earlier than he would have done otherwise. Germ warfare, however, has so far proven a rare phenomenon, not necessarily because of moral or legal constraints, but because of logistical difficulties. Pathogens, after all, make no distinction between friend and foe, and their effectiveness is limited by environmental factors; a shift in the direction of the wind, for instance. Nonetheless, many nations have pursued research programs into germ warfare. During World War II, the Japanese in occupied Manchria conducted a clandestine operation in which Chinese civilians were exposed to biological agents, often with lethal results. At the height of the cold war, the United States and the Soviet Union embarked upon intensive biological research programs. In 1979 an experiment on anthrax (a deadly bacterial agent) at a Soviet biological weapons facility located in Sverdlovsk (now Ekaterinberg, Russia) went horribly awry, causing the deaths of at least 68 people. In 2001, 22 people in the United States were exposed to anthrax spores sent through the mails; five people died. (Five years later the perpetrator was still at large.) Possibly no pathogen arouses more concern than smallpox, which was finally eliminated after a concerted public health campaign. Officially, only two samples of the smallpox virus remain—one in a lab in Moscow, the other at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia. Since most people have never been vaccinated against the disease, a smallpox pandemic could have a catastrophic impact. Fears that rogue nations or terrorists could gain possession of a virus such as smallpox or stockpile a sufficient quantity of anthrax to infect tens of thousands of people have only increased in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In recent years scientific advances have brought a new threat to the fore; it is now possible to add human, animal, insect, or plant genes to any microbe to create disease- causing organisms—dubbed superbugs—to which humans have no immunity whatsoever.

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