Doctors for Disaster Preparedness

unedited manuscript eventually published in JAMA 8/4/89

Chemical and Biological Warfare:

Should Defenses Be Researched and Deployed?

Jane M. Orient, MD

1601 N. Tucson Blvd. Suite 9
Tucson, AZ 85716
Telephone: 602-325-2689


The threat of chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction has intensified due to improved delivery systems and advances in chemistry, genetics, and other sciences. Possible US responses include deterrence, defenses, and/or disarmament, including a reaffirmation of the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972, which is now in jeopardy. The choice of response should take into account weapons proliferation to third world nations and terrorist groups, as well as Soviet actions (such as alleged treaty violations).

"The noise of fourteen thousand aeroplanes advancing in open order. But in the Kurfurstendamm. . . , the explosion of anthrax bombs is hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag."

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1932

In the nuclear age, another type of weapon of mass destruction is often forgotten. Yet the stockpile of nerve gas in the US alone is estimated to be sufficient to kill the entire population of the world 4000 times over,1 given an efficient delivery system. Chemical and biological weapons may be the ultimate "capitalist weapon," leaving the economic infrastructure intact to an even greater extent than the neutron bomb.


However unthinkable the use of these horrific weapons, there is ample historical precedent. In 1347, the Tatars, afflicted by bubonic plague during their siege of Caffa, used catapults to hurl their dead into the city, spreading the disease to Genoan defenders, who took the Black Death with them when they fled to Italy. In colonial days, the British gave American Indians "gifts" of smallpox-carrying blankets.2 In World War I, at least 1.3 million men were wounded by gas (including Adolf Hitler), and 91,000 of them died.1 In the 1930s, the Italian army repeatedly gassed Ethiopians, and Japan launched more than 800 gas attacks in its conquest of Manchuria.3 The Japanese probably used biological agents to attack the Chinese, and are believed to have conducted experiments with the agents in thousands of Chinese prisoners of war.1 Many other examples could be cited.

In World War II, the use of chemical and biological weapons might have been far more extensive than it actually was. The Germans had developed tabun and sarin, extremely potent cholinesterase inhibitors, and German factories were capable of producing around 12,000 tons of poison gas per month. The Luftwaffe had half a million gas bombs. Though lagging in research on nerve gas, the British biological warfare project was years ahead of the Nazis. The British actually produced 5 million cattle cakes filled with anthrax, and the US had a contingency plan to use the anthrax bomb against Germany.1

Existing and Potential Weapons

The US stockpiled about 40,000 tons of chemical warfare agents4 before production ceased around 1969. The agents include include phosgene, hydrogen cyanide, and mustard.5 About half the inventory is nerve gas.4 Due to chemical deterioration, only about 10% of the stockpile has immediate military utility, and an additional 10 to 20% limited utility, according to the Department of Defense.6 Currently, the US is replacing this inventory with binary weapons, two relatively safe components that form a lethal agent when mixed.7,8 The Soviets are believed to have stockpiled 300,000 to 400,000 tons of a variety of chemical weapons, including phosgene, nerve agents (tabun, sarin, soman), hydrogen cyanide, and blistering agents (mustard).9 At the Paris Conference on Chemical Weapons, the Soviet Union announced that it would destroy its stockpile10, which it declares consists of 50,000 tons of toxic substances.11

Numerous pathogenic organisms, including bacteria, rickettsiae, viruses, and fungi, have been proposed and probably investigated as agents of biological warfare.12-15 Many of the organisms are highly lethal, although others (such as brucellosis, developed as a potential weapon by the US during World War II),1 might be used with the intention of simply incapacitating the enemy for long periods. Smallpox virus has been called the most important agent,12 possibly because there is an effective vaccine as well as a somewhat useful (but generally unavailable) drug, methisazone. Conceivably, a nation might protect its own population, then unleash the virus against an unvaccinated world. (Although widely believed to be extinct, samples of the virus are still kept in maximum-security reference repositories, under the auspices of the World Health Organization, in Moscow and Atlanta.)16

Instead of the organisms themselves, their toxins might be used. Although toxins could not start epidemics, they might survive transport better. A number of toxins, including botulinus toxin, have been studied by the US Department of Defense. Trichothecenes, derived from the mold Fusaria and allegedly found in a few samples related to "yellow rain" attacks, are believed to be produced at Berdsk Chemical Works near Novosibirsk, a facility suspected of involvement in chemical and biological warfare. At least 22 articles in the Soviet literature concern the optimum conditions for biosynthesis of this agent in large quantities.17

Advancements in biotechnology open prospects for the development of organisms that are resistant to existing drugs and vaccines or that produce more lethal toxins, possibly by modifying normally harmless or relatively benign microorganisms.18 The Soviets have recognized this possibility for at least two decades. The incorporation of the genetic code for a component of cobra venom into viruses such as influenza is one of the ominous possibilities suggested in a series of articles in the Wall Street Journal.19 The role for such weapons was discussed during a Warsaw Pact scientific conference in East Germany in 1971, where it was reported that:

the rapid development of biological engineering will make it possible in just a few years to produce synthetic or partially synthetic toxins on a large scale. Such toxin agents represent a combination of the hitherto chemical and biological weapons....

Neurotropic toxins are toxic proteins which are primarily byproducts of the life cycles of microorganisms. The neurotropic toxins are the most toxic chemical substances...Under combat conditions, they can be used as an aerosol or in solid or liquid state in mixed elements of ammunition; they can also be used for sabotage purposes.9

Delivery Mechanisms

The effectiveness of aerosols for dispersing biological weapons has been demonstrated in over 200 experiments in the US alone. In 1950, US Navy vessels released clouds of Bacillus globigii and Serratia marcescens over San Francisco. Nearly everyone in the city inhaled 5000 or more particles contaminated with bacteria. In 1966, the Chemical Corps Special Operations Division released aerosols of bacteria (believed to be harmless) in the New York subway. Due to the turbulence generated by the trains, bacteria were carried to the ends of the tunnels within minutes.1 These methods could easily be employed by terrorists.

Many types of delivery mechanisms are feasible: missiles, artillery, mines, multiple rail and tube-launched rockets, fighter-bombers, and attack helicopters.15, 20 Intercontinental delivery of chemical and biological agents is now possible with ballistic missiles. Some investigation has been carried out in the USSR into the effects of warhead "tumbling" as a means of dissemination of chemical agents from large missiles.15 (While large-scale intercontinental attacks against civilians with chemical weapons are unlikely, the possibility of such use of biological weapons has to be taken seriously, given that biological weapons weigh 105 to 106 times less than chemical weapons of the same "yield" in numbers of casualties.21)

Cruise missiles might be the ideal delivery system for biological weapons, because of their ability to place a toxic cloud close to the ground. Flight at subsonic speeds would avoid some of the problems of heating of the agent when it is ejected into the wind stream. The combination of the cruise missile and existing lethal organisms would be vastly superior to the blast effect of nuclear weapons and would rival nuclear weapons fallout in terms of area coverage per ton of payload.21 The calculations that led to this conclusion are based on atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons, experiments in the dispersal of nonlethal agents from aircraft, the lethal dose of various biological agents, and assumptions about meteorological conditions. In the BRAVO test explosion at Bikini Atoll (yield 14 to 15 megatons), the lethal fallout contour (300 rads in 96 hours) covered an area of about 10,000 sq mi.22, p. 437 Given suitable weather conditions and a cruise missile flying like a crop duster, 100 gm of a biological agent (about 1010 lethal doses of anthrax spores) could cover about 1 square mile under light wind conditions at night, and 1 ton could cover about 10,000 sq mi, an area the same order of magnitude as the lethal fallout from a groundburst nuclear warhead weighing more than 1 ton (a warhead weighing 1 ton has a yield of about 1 megaton).

The Soviet literature also states that infectious-disease vectors can be propagated over tens of thousands of square kilometers by means of aerosols.23


The recent furor over the Libyan complex near Rabta, which is potentially capable of producing tens of tons of toxic substances daily, has called attention to the "poor man's atomic bomb." The US Defense Intelligence Agency believes that about 20 other nations (in addition to the US, the USSR, and France) now possess chemical weapons.3 Many other third world nations have chemical warfare capability. Iraq is said to have produced several thousand tons of mustard gas and tabun and sarin since the early 1980s.24 Ten nations are believed to be developing biological weapons.25 The appeal of such weapons to third world nations is obvious. Sophisticated technology is not required, and the weapons are very cost-effective. For a large-scale operation against a civilian population, casualties might cost $2000/km2 with conventional weapons, $800 with nuclear weapons, $600 with nerve gas, and $1 with biological weapons.26?

Long-range delivery systems are also proliferating. Aging, "obsolete" ballistic missiles cast off by the superpowers are being acquired by third world nations. The range of the missiles is extended if they carry a lighter, chemical or biological warhead, and inaccuracy is a lesser problem. The Soviet Scud B missile is believed to be in the hands of Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Syria, and several other nations. The US Nike-Hercules missile has been modified by South Korea. Argentina, China, and Brazil are marketing new missiles.3

Disadvantages of Chemical and Biological Weapons

While chemical and biological weapons can terrorize their victims with ghastly effectiveness, they also pose problems for the user. Invading troops would have to operate in a contaminated environment. Biological weapons might outwit their creators' precautions for protecting their own population; living organisms can develop resistance to vaccines or antibiotics. Accidents at production facilities could threaten enormous numbers of people.

Over the long term, persistent ecological consequences of chemical and especially biological agents are a possibility that could make the byproducts of the nuclear weapons industry seem insignificant by comparison. On most of the islands in Pacific atolls that are still called "uninhabitable" after nuclear weapons tests, the radiation dose from all exposure pathways ranges (depending on diet) from 45 to 100% of the US population- weighted external background dose or from 23 to 50% of the Denver, Colorado external background dose.20 More fearful consequences from biological agents have already been demonstrated. The myxomatosis inoculation of a few rabbits in France in 1952 resulted in the spread of disease over an entire continent.28 At the scene of British World War II tests of anthrax bombs on the island of Gruinard, a 1979 survey still detected viable spores,29 despite an effort at decontamination by burning off the heather.1 (By 1983, the area of significant contamination was small enough to make effective decontamination feasible using sporocides such as potassium permanganate, formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde, and peracetic acid, although such agents might also raise ecologic concerns.30) Numerous hypothetical consequences, especially the unpredictable long-term effects of biological warfare agents, have also been discussed.28

Methods for Preventing the Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons

Those who argue for expanded US investment in research on these weapons can cite deterrence as the rationale. Since World War I, the victims of chemical agents have been nations that had no capacity to retaliate in kind.6, 21

A variety of circumstances1 may have prevented Hitler from using his secret weapons (tabun and sarin) against the Allies, although no moral scruples prevented him from testing them on inmates of concentration camps. It is possible that he hesitated because of his belief, based on extremely flimsy evidence, that the British also possessed the secret. Retaliation would not only have killed many German civilians, but might have incapacitated the Wehrmacht's transportation system, which was heavily dependent on horses. (Late in the war, Hitler might have used poison gas in spite of the risk of retaliation, but by then he lacked an air force to deliver it.)

One might infer that in-kind deterrence is part of Soviet doctrine from the fact of their extensive capacity to engage in chemical -- and possibly biological -- warfare. At the end of World War II, German attempts to destroy their own chemical warfare plants failed, and the Soviets acquired whole factories along with technical information.1 The Defense Intelligence Agency reported that the widespread Soviet network of production, testing, and storage facilities was continuing to expand as of 1985. More than 45,000 troops specializing in chemical warfare serve in the ground forces alone.20 Up to 2000 scientists and technicians are employed by the Institute of Molecular Biology near Novosibirsk, the largest of three research and development institutes believed to be concerned with biological warfare.9

The existence of defenses against chemical and biological weapons might also be considered a part of deterrence (by preventing an enemy from achieving his objective) or alternately as evidence of intentions to use such agents. It is possible that the British manufacture of 40 million gas masks in 193931 might have helped discourage Hitler from launching a gas attack. Allied military leaders arranged to inoculate about 100,000 soldiers against botulism, hoping to convince the Germans that the Allies were preparing for biological retaliation; the Germans never called the bluff.2

Many Western scientists argue against deterrence or defenses, and in favor of relying solely on international agreements to ban chemical and biological weapons. (Such scientists generally appear to see deterrence/defense and arms control as mutually exclusive, although proponents of the former do not necessarily oppose arms agreements in addition to defense.) To date, there has been better success in obtaining agreements to limit chemical and biological agents than to limit nuclear weapons. US generals were never able to answer a question posed by Matthew Meselson in the 1960s: under what circumstances would they actually order the use of biological weapons? Because their effects are so unpredictable, any available alternative would be used instead. Even for retaliation against a massive and deliberate biological attack, "the alternative of nuclear weapons was available and would be preferred."33 Convinced by this argument, President Richard Nixon ordered unilateral disarmament: the abandonment of development programs for biological weapons and the destruction of weapons stockpiles. In 1972, the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention was signed by Brezhnev. The Soviets did not actually destroy any such weapons; they simply issued a statement claiming not to possess them.1, p. 218

The Convention does not outlaw research into defenses against biological weapons. But recent proposals to increase spending for such research ($60 million in 198825) have been opposed by scientists.34 More than 500 scientists have signed a pledge not to do work that could help develop biological weapons. Many believe this includes the development of vaccines against such weapons because "offensive and defensive research are indistinguishable."25 It is also argued that there is no feasible defense against biological weapons, given the vast number of possible agents (unless the agent to be used is known), but that attempts to develop a specific defense would make it possible to use that specific agent offensively, thus making the use of the weapons less unthinkable.25

A ban on the use of existing vaccines has also been proposed: "negotiating an end to the vaccination of troops [by the US and the USSR], with its reassuring implications for reduced biological warfare risk, would be a final step in ending the fear of smallpox."35 In this view, vulnerability to a weapon seems to be a prerequisite for assuring compliance with a ban against its use.

Confidence in the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention has been shaken by accusations of Soviet violations: the alleged use of mycotoxins in Southeast Asia and the Sverdlovsk incident.

The "yellow rain" controversy has died down. Reports of deaths in the wake of flights by Soviet helicopters have ceased, and many scientists have been persuaded4, 13 by the bee feces explanation for the yellow substance -- a hypothesis formulated by Matthew Meselson, the man who is credited33 with fathering the treaty that might be destroyed by proof of Soviet use of mycotoxins. Others have an equally strong conviction that toxin weapons were used against defenseless people. Incontrovertible evidence was not adduced, but some have cited inadequacies in the investigations.36

The Sverdlovsk incident continues to be a subject of heated controversy. The report of an anthrax outbreak due to an explosion at a Soviet biological weapons factory apparently originated in Posev, an obscure Frankfurt-based magazine published by Soviet emigres.1 The Soviet news agency Tass admitted that there had been outbreaks of anthrax in Sverdlovsk, but attributed them to contaminated meat. US intelligence analysts claimed that cases of inhalation anthrax had occurred, that aerial decontamination attempts were consistent with an accident at the military facility, and that the 1000 or more cases exceeded the annual incidence of anthrax throughout the Soviet Union by at least a factor of 100.18 Soviet officials countered that there had been no cases spread by inhalation, no aerial decontamination, and only 96 cases of illness.37, 38 (Earlier, a Soviet official had stated that decontamination had been necessary because some "undisciplined workers" had thrown contaminated meat into open garbage containers.39) Their explanations persuaded a group organized and led by Matthew Meselson, whose requests to meet with Soviet scientists were granted under Gorbachev's glasnost,40 but the Pentagon remains unconvinced.37

While some persons, alarmed by reports of Soviet biological warfare activities as well as by the proliferation of the weapons, call for improvements in intelligence and in response capabilities,26 others consider these recommendations an "irresponsible provocation" that might weaken prospects to "stave off a biological arms race."41 Proponents of the latter view believe that we must restore confidence in the existing legal regimes of prohibition, and that the main burden for doing so resides in Washington, not Moscow. In this view, the best hope for preventing the genie from escaping is a ban on research into medical defense against biological war, except for investigations of "passive defenses" (clothing and vehicles impervious to chemical and biological agents) that do not involve actual testing with pathogenic organisms or toxic chemicals.13, 41

The lack of verification provisions in previous treaties has been noted.13 Possible verification strategies have been extensively discussed,14 along with the difficulties resulting from the relative ease of production of chemical and biological weapons, using technology that has many legitimate applications such as the manufacture of fertilizer, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals.6 Beyond verification, assuring compliance may be the key issue.36

Defense in Case of Actual Use of Chemical and Biological Agents

In case the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention of 1972 (as well as current initiatives to restrict chemical weapons) should fail to prevent use of such agents, perhaps by a third world power that did not sign the agreement, some nations actually deploy defenses. These nations may still recall the failure of the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which forbids the first use of chemical and biological weapons.32

The Soviet corps of chemical warfare specialists has about 30,000 vehicles for decontamination and reconnaissance and has developed more than 200 areas for teaching all forces how to protect themselves and how to clean up the area following combat in which chemical weapons have been used. The training includes the use of actual chemical agents.20 Soviet civil defense textbooks used in institutions of higher education instruct citizens in how to recognize a chemical or biological attack, and in protective measures.23, 42, 43 Gas masks are shown as part of standard equipment for shelters. Filmstrips for required civil defense classes show detailed instructions for the decontamination of areas affected by various agents (including mustard and sarin) with solutions of hypochlorite, lime, sodium hydroxide, or ammonia.44 Specifications for ventilating systems in Soviet blast shelters include provision for operation in "filter-ventilation" or "total isolation" mode to protect against radioactive fallout, chemical agents, or toxic gases from combustion. The exhaust blast valves are designed to maintain a small positive pressure to prevent unfiltered air from entering.45

In contrast, specific training in chemical warfare defense is not given to citizens or even to civil defense organizations or fire and police personnel within NATO nations. Apart from Switzerland and Sweden, no nation outside the Warsaw Pact has any detection and alarm provision for the civilian population.9 (Swiss blast and radiation shelters are also equipped with absolute filters to remove chemical and biological agents.)46, 47

At the present time, there are only developmental models of detectors of aerosols that might carry biological agents.21 However, several possible detection methods appear promising.14

With regard to biological weapons, Soviet inattention to public health (as illustrated by the fact that anthrax is endemic in the Soviet Union, irrespective of the cause of the Sverdlovsk outbreak) can be said to constitute a "window of vulnerability." An efficient network of disease control centers has been proposed by Newtol Press as a "minimal defensive necessity."2

In addition to the passive defenses discussed above, active defenses might also be deployed against the delivery systems. Strategic defenses such as those designed for use against nuclear-armed ICBMs48 would work equally well against missiles armed with other types of warheads. Such defenses would be more effective against a few missiles launched by a third world power than against a massive attack by a superpower. A substantially less expensive technology -- the "Brilliant Pebbles" concept -- has recently been proposed with a cost estimate of $10 billion.49

While some have argued that strategic defenses would be ineffective against cruise missiles, which are better carriers for biological weapons, these subsonic projectiles are actually targeted more easily than ICBMs. Soviet SA-10 surface-to- air missiles and Foxhound fighter airplanes with look-down, shoot-down radar can already destroy American air-launched cruise missiles.50


Chemical and biological weapons exist and are proliferating. There is considerable precedent for their use.

It is clearly in the interest of humankind to prevent the future use of such agents of mass destruction, particularly as they become ever more lethal with advances in bioengineering.

As with nuclear weapons, the argument over the best preventive strategy often pits deterrence and defense against disarmament treaties. In actual practice, the Soviet Union has a substantial investment in the former, although it does sign treaties. Western nations (except Switzerland in the realm of defense only) have a much more limited investment in the development and production of weapons or protective measures.

Difficulties in verifying (or enforcing) treaties are illustrated by the still unresolved disagreements over alleged Soviet violations. Whatever one may think of Soviet intentions, these same difficulties apply to all nations possessing, or aspiring to possess, these weapons.

Irrespective of treaties concerning weapons production, serious discussion is in order regarding improvements in the means of protecting the civilian population, as well as troops, against this growing threat.


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