The United Nations consider biological weapons as "systems that disseminate disease-causing organisms or toxins to harm or kill humans, animals or plants". Together with nuclear and chemical agents, they make up the group of so-called weapons of mass destruction. Since the international Biological Weapons Convention of 1972, the development, production and stockpiling have been prohibited; the Geneva Protocol of 1925 already forbade the use of biological weapons.
Presently, there are about 200 viruses or bacteria that can be used as a weapon. Depending on how deadly and freely available they are, these organisms are classed in three categories. Smallpox, plague and anthrax are some of the most dangerous pathogens. The yellow fever virus and the tuberculosis bacteria, however, are considered to be less dangerous as they are relatively easy to treat.
Compared to the considerable amount of effort needed to build an atomic bomb, the substances required to make biological weapons are often quite easy to obtain. This is why biological weapons are sometimes called the atomic bomb of the man on the street. Theoretically, small amounts of biological warfare agents can kill large amounts of people. Some studies even state that under 'optimal' circumstances, these weapons can be more destructive than nuclear weapons. Practical problems, however, hamper their effective use, particularly over considerable distances. To begin with, one needs to find the suitable delivery system. Missiles develop extremely high temperatures that would destroy the viruses or bacteria. Technically rather easy means of delivery often do not guarantee the spread of the pathogens over large areas necessary to fully achieve the desired effect.
Despite these challenges, it remains to be said that biological warfare is as old as warfare itself (compare Info text "Biological weapons and biological warfare—a short history"). Already in early history, it was known that decaying corpses could be used to poison the wells of the enemy. But only after methods were developed to grow bacterial cultures in the 19th century did military researchers start to think about and systematically investigate the use of biological warfare agents as weapons of mass destruction. The German Reich and Japan in particular carried out extensive research programmes in World War I and II; it was not unusual that deadly pathogens were tested on prisoners.
During the Cold War, it was mainly the United States and the Soviet Union who continued their research on biological weapons. At the same time, international efforts increased to forbid or regulate testing and use of biological weapons. After the United States had already formally ended their research programme in 1969, the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on their Destruction (in short Biological Weapons Convention) was opened for signature on 10 April 1972.
It followed the Geneva Protocol on the "Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare" that was signed already in 1925 but did not contain any condemnation of the production and stockpiling of biological warfare agents. The goal of this international treaty of 1972 was to stop the use and production of offensive biological weapons worldwide. Research on methods of how to defend against attacks with biological warfare agents remains legal. Yet as it is often extremely difficult to differentiate between 'defensive' and 'offensive' research on biological weapons, the convention opens a loophole for the potential misuse (see info text "Research on warfare agents—Offensive research, defensive research").
In 2012, 165 states had joined the Biological Weapons Convention. Still, many countries continue with the research programmes on these warfare agents even though in the most cases, a production of offensive weapons for military use is quite unlikely. In Germany, for instance, the centre for biological hazards and special pathogens (ZBS) develops methods to detect biological warfare agents on behalf of the federal government. While the possible use of biological weapons in interstate wars is less of a threat scenario, the fear of them being deployed by non-state and violent groups, so-called bioterrorists, is far more real. Indeed, in the recent past, some groups have already tried to attack targets with biological weapons, however, always without success or more widespread effects (see Info text "Bioterrorism—Myth, science fiction or current threat?"). Whether the state ought to invest more in the defence against 'bio-attacks' by terrorists or whether these resources ought better be invested in other areas of medical research remains an open discussion on security policy and health.
Sources and further information:
- Research Group for Biological Arms Control at the University of Hamburg
- Kelle, Alexander &Kathryn Nixdorff (2002): Verlieren die Staaten die Kontrolle über ihre Kriegsmittel? Zur Problematik der Biowaffen; in: Friedensgutachten, Münster, Lit Verlag, S. 71-79. (German)
- United Nations Office in Geneva: Disarmament: The Biological Weapons Convention.
- UNODA - United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs
- von Aken, Jan & Iris Hunger (2006): Die Zukunft der biologischen Rüstungskontrolle – Transatlantischer Dissens; in: Friedensgutachten, S. 217-226. (German)