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Biological warfare: silent weapons

Today, the panic and terror that a biological attack is an important concern for the most powerful countries. What are biological weapons? What organisms are used for their production? Is there a possibility of a bioterrorist attack? This article is the answer to these and more questions.

INTRODUCTION

The military use of microorganisms and substances derived from its activity is known as biological warfare. They are generally used to create disease, panic, terror and death in the population. If this objective is carried out clandestinely, we are talking about bioterrorism. Biological weapons are considered weapons of mass destruction, difficult to control and silent weapons (the detection time is extended due to the periods of incubation). 

These military methods have been used since ancient times. The Mongols threw the corpses infected with the plague against the walls of the cities enemy; in the war of 1867 in Paraguay, the soldiers threw corpses with cholera to wells to infect their enemies and decrease its troops. In the 20th century, with the increase of knowledge in Bacteriology and Virology, many countries began to produce biological weapons, as for example the creation of Fort Detrick in USA facilities and  Biopreparat laboratory in Russia. In 1972 was held the Convention on the prohibition of the production and distribution of biological weapons, was the arrival at an agreement to not produce this type of weaponry. However, in 2001, several civilian Americans suffered a biological attack with anthrax. The result was 5 deaths and an increase in insecurity against a biological attack. 

There are many types of biological weapons according to its objective (humans, plants or animals) or the biological component present (bacteria, viruses, toxins). In this article will analyze different biological agents most likely to use. The following table shows some examples, although the list could increase if we consider genetically modified agents.

tabla_organismos
Examples of bioagents used in biowarfare. Autor Duraipandian Thavaselvam

 

BACTERIOLOGICAL WEAPONS

This type of weapons is composed of bacteria or its spores (forms of resistance). Most of these organisms are easily found in nature and some of them are genetically modified to acquire a greater capacity for infection, increased resistance to the conditions of the environment, etc.

The body that most feared is Bacillus anthracis, popularly known as anthrax. This form of Bacillus bacterium forms resistant spores that can remain infectious in the environment for years. It may infect via three routes: skin lesions, through ingestion of spores or by breathing them. The latter is the most dangerous case and most often used in biological warfare. Even so, this bacteria cannot be transmitted between people, which would be used in a certain range, like for example one person. 

anthrax
Photomicrograph of Bacillus anthracis. The red circle designates the endospores. Public photo of CDC

 

A good biological weapon would be one that could spread through the air and spread person to person. Yersinia pestis is a bacterium that meets this profile. It is responsible for the known as the black death that took the lives of more than 50 million people in the 14th century. There are three types of plague: bubonic (the most common and transmitted by the bite of a flea), septicemic and pneumonic (the most virulent and the most interesting in terms of its use as a biological weapon). Currently, Yersinia pestis is controlled by antibiotics but a laboratory created a resistant strain through genetic modification. This fact would imply that current medicine would not serve to neutralize it.

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Electron photomicrograph of scanning (SEM) of Yersinia pestis (Public Photo from CDC)

 

Bacteria of the genus Brucella (cause of human brucellosis), Francisella tularensis (cause of tularemia), vibrio chloreae (cause of cholera disease) and other microorganisms are considered possible bacteriological weapons. These last are classified at lower levels of endangerment due to factors such as previous immunization of the population. Note that some experts believe that there are many possible bacteria, that genetically modified, they could become dangerous biological weapons.

VIRAL WEAPONS

Viruses are infectious particles that can only multiply inside of other cells. So they have different specific mechanisms to enter and infect a cell and replicate inside it. These features make them the perfect biological weapon. Many of them are natural pathogens of man. They need small infective doses to produce the disease and can transmit different forms of person to person.

Smallpox is the best-known virus used as a possible biological weapon. Humans are the only natural carriers of this virus. This is very contagious and has a large virulence (capacity of infection). Currently, it is considered eradicated, but two samples were kept in laboratories in the United States and Russia. Theoretically, they should be removed at the end of 1993, but no one said that this had happened. The smallpox virus as a biological weapon would be very dangerous since currently population is not immunized and his could generate a new pandemic.

smallpox-virus-cdc
Microphotography with electron microscope of smallpox virus (public photo of the CDC)

 

Another very important virus in recent years is the Ebola virus. It produces hemorrhagic fevers with a high mortality rate. His diagnosis is difficult and its biological cycle is virtually unknown. These characteristics make this virus a perfect candidate as a biological weapon. Even so, note that it is a fragile virus that only survives a few hours in the middle. It has great difficulty of dispersion is not transmitted by air. There is no cure, but it can be treated in early stages by a serum with antibodies against the virus. Other virus hemorrhagic fevers as the Marburg viruses of the family Araviridae and others are also good candidates for biological agents for war. 

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Microphotography with electron microscope of ebola virus (public photo of the CDC)

 

TOXINS 

There are a large number of bacterial toxins that could be used as a biological weapon. They have high mortality rates, are very toxic and are easily produced, as it would be the case of the toxin of Clostridium  botulinum. These toxins produce botulism. Another interesting toxin is ricin (extracted from the shrub Ricinus communis) which has already been used as a biological weapon, has no antidote, and according to the CDC is one of the most powerful poisons that are known.

Using genetic modification has been achieved that bacteria such as Escherichia coli (that do not produce these toxins) can generate them. By inserting special genes in non-pathogenic bacteria, is becoming easier to produce large amounts of toxins.

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DO NOT PANIC! Current Nations have extensive prevention and Biodefense programs. The research and knowledge of these microorganisms are the solutions to a possible biological attack.

REFERENCES

Maribel-anglès

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