Introduction to Biodefense
Biodefense is a broad term that encompasses not only biological weapons but chemical ones too. The difference being that chemical weapons are not naturally occurring but are created, biological weapons on the other hand are viruses and bacteria that inflict disease among people and typically can be found in nature. FAS is a great source when looking for information on this topic. Here are a few brief examples of what can be found.
Chemical weapons have been a fairly recent development with their creation and use beginning during the First World War. The weapon of choice at that point was a “gas” such as tear or mustard; even phosgene and chlorine were implemented. Chemical weapons were heavily utilized during WWI but after the Geneva Protocol was adopted their use was minimal. Most of the R&D for these types of weapons has focused more on the delivery system then increasing the toxicity. Sarin is one example of a chemical nerve agent; it is a colorless, odorless, tasteless, man-made chemical. Cyanide is an example of a blood agent that can either be a solid, or a gas (which is its most lethal form).
The use of biological weapons on the other hand dates back as early as the 12th century when the Hittites drove diseased animals and people into enemy territory. The Mongols catapulted bodies infected with the plague into cites they seized and British soldiers gave blankets contaminated with small pox to Native Americans during the Pontiac’s War. Another branch of biological weapons are toxins which are non-living agents but come from living organisms such as mandrake root or roots of the hellebore plant.
Regulating bioweapons began with the Geneva Protocol in 1925, where the first control placed on biological weapons forbade their use in warfare. The BTWC or Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention took place in 1972 and since then the document has been open for States to sign and ratify. These States have agreed not to produce biological weapons and other toxins. Since then there has been much discussion on potential dual use research and many safeguards put into place. For more information check out FAS’s Biosecurity Program and check Twitter and Facebook for more “Did you Know?”