Daily Medicos

Biodefense and Bioterrorism: A global threat to the world

What is meant by biodefense?

The term “biodefense” is used for those measures that are taken to restore the biosecurity of living organisms that are or may be subjected to biological threads or infectious diseases. Conservation of water supplies and food supplies is an evaluative part of biodefense. Biodefense is usually applied to two largest targeted population:

  1. Civilian non-combatant 
  2. Military combatant

What is mean by bioterrorism?

A type of terrorism associated with the intentional release of biological agents like bacteria and virus is termed as bioterrorism or germ warfare. According to the statement by the government of the United States “Unethical and unlawful use of violence and force against property and person to terrify the civilian population, government or any segment thereof for social or political objectives is known as bioterrorism”. Bioterrorism does not only include the use of biological agents but also the use of weapons such as guns, nuclear bomb, or other chemical agents. Naturally present biological agents like viruses and bacteria can further be modified by terrorists to increase its virulence factor or increase its transmission from person to person so it spreads more rapidly within hours or few days.

 History of Bioterrorism

The history of Bioterrorism is too old and it is too difficult to mention every event of the past in which violence had been made by people against humanity, however, the most important events of history are highlighted as follows:

  • During the 5th century BC, The natives of South America were given gifts and clothes loaded with viruses to conqueror South America.
  • In 6th century poisons from the plants were used for contamination of bathing and drinking wells of enemies.
  • In 1155, Italy, water wells were poisoned by Barba Rossa with dead human bodies.
  • In 1346 the walls of the city of Caffa were being crowded with victim bodies of plaque by Mongols.
  • In 1495 wine is being mixed with the blood of leprosy patients in Spanish and sold to their french foes. 
  • In 1650 saliva from rabid dogs was being fired by the Polish army towards their enemies.
  • During world war 1 and 2, different types of biological agents were being used by Japan, USA, and North America to cause infectious disease with intentions to destroy their enemies by increasing their morbidity and mortality rate.

Biological agents that can be used in Bioterrorism

Biological agents are actually the germ like viruses and bacteria or any part of the toxic plant-like seed or fruit, 7 flower that is used to harm humanity or endangered species of animals. The main reason behind the utilization of biological agents by terrorists for bioterrorism is easy excess to these agents. The table below shows some common biological agents along with the disease that is caused by these biological agents: 

Biological agentsDiseases
Bacillus anthraciteAnthrax
Clostridium botulinum toxinBotulism
Yersinia pesticPlaque
Variola majorSmall pox
Brucella speciesBrucellosis
Filo virus & arenavirusViral hemorrhagic fever
Salmonella, Shigella & Escherichia coli speciesFood poisoning
Vibrio choleraCholera
Influenza virusFlu
Staphylococcal endotoxin BFood poisoning
Rickettsia prowazekiiEpidemic typhus 
Mycobacterium tuberculosisTuberculosis
Francisella tularensisTularemia
Ricinus communisRicin toxicity 

Bioterrorism Attacks and Examples

Bioterrorism attacks can be done using a number of techniques and devices like aerosol sprays or devices. The type of pathogen also decides the choice of method for its rapid spread. Bioweapons may also be used like missiles or cheap weapons to cause great harm. However, in battlefield situations, it is somehow difficult to make predictions on bioweapons. Here are a few examples of bioterrorism attacks mentioned below:

1. Anthrax

Experts have a firm belief that Bacillus anthracis is the most common organism to be used in bioterrorism because of its easy availability, easy production in the lab and due to its versatile nature it can be spread in form of sprays, powders or food. In 2001, Anthrax spores contracted 22 people sent by the United States portal system which caused the death of 5 people.

2. Smallpox

Another capable bioterrorism agent is smallpox but due to the continued practice of vaccinations, smallpox is now not a matter for serious concern for the world. The last natural spread of smallpox occurred in 1977. It is still present in the laboratories of Russia and U.S and may prove itself as a harmful bioweapon in bioterrorism.

3. Plaque

The causative agent of plaque i.e Yersinia pestis is used by Tartars about hundred of years ago but still a sign of danger for the modern world. In humans it may cause either bubonic plaque (easy to treat with antibiotics) or if spread to lungs may cause pneumonic plaque (that doesn’t respond well to antibiotics). 

Categories of Bioterrorism agents

Category A

Category A contains those highly preferred bioterrorism agents that possess a high risk to national security and public, because: 

  • It can easily be transmitted from one person to another person
  • Results in high mortality rate 
  • Can cause social disruption and panic
  • Need special action by the government to provide resistance against it

Bioterrorism agents of category A include the following: 

  • Bacillus anthracis
  • Yersinia pestis
  • Clostridium botulinum toxin
  • Variola major
  • Francisella tularensis
  • Ebola virus 
  • Lassa virus

Category B

Category B consist of all those bioterrorism  agents that possess second-highest priority due to the following reasons:

  • They are moderately easy to spread
  • Leads to low death rates
  • Need special enhancement of CDC’s laboratory capacity & advanced disease monitoring

Bioterrorism agents of category B include the following:

  • Brucella species
  • Burkholderia mallei
  • Burkholderia psedomallei
  • Salmonella, Shigella & Escherichia coli
  • Clostridium perfringes
  • Chlamydia psittaci
  • Rickettsia prowazekii
  • Alphavirus
  • Coxiella burnteii
  • Vibrio cholera
  • Cryptosporidium parvum
  • Riccinus communis ( castor beans)

Category C:

Category C includes all those bioterrorism agents that possess the third rank as a priority for causing bioterrorism. The main reasons for selecting them as a third priority are

  • Easy availability
  • Easily synthesized or being spread
  • Have a tendency to cause major deaths

Bioterrorism agents of category C include growing infectious disease like:

  • Hantavirus
  • Nipah Virus

Is the spread of coronavirus bioterrorism?

MERS coronavirus is not a new one, infants or emerges in 2012 and causes illness and disease. It has been compared with SARS that is responsible for pandemic 10 years ago. After the analyses by the school of public health & community medicine at UNSW, it is reported that MERS coronavirus is totally different from SARS. It is less infectious than SARS but causes more deaths and stays more than 3 times the duration of SARS. This raises the question of whether It is used intentionally for bioterrorism or not?

So many questions start raising on the unusual patterns of MERS-CoV, sudden outbreaks in hospital and presence of different strains of the same virus leads to another type of question that how the staff of hospital or people can be exposed to different strains of the same virus in very short time? From where the different strains of the virus come from? The data explanation gives sound evidence that pointed towards the possibility of bioterrorism but still, final conclusions are undefined.

Before you leave!

Bioterrorism is indeed a global threat that harms many precious lives as well as the economy of a state so likewise considered at global levels. Bioterrorism history reveals the destruction and loss that occur due to bioterrorism attacks. Many organizations have been set up to control the situation and intentions of bioterrorism by enhancing defensive strategies. Scientific research on bacteriology is being advanced and progressing continuously. The conclusions from these studies help to take important and significant measures for maintaining biodefense and to stop bioterrorism attacks.

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