Bioweapons in the Age of Life Science


1. Anthrax incidents in the US

Serious concerns about the possible use of microbes as weapons of terror have risen markedly since the anthrax scare in the U.S. last fall. Unlike explosion of bombs, biological weapons such as smallpox are not visible. Unlike chemical weapons such as sarin gas, effect of which appears within a short time period, people would not notice existence of biological weapons immediately. There is usually an incubation period and early symptoms are often similar to those of flu or influenza. These make it difficult to fight against bioterrism today.

According to the Dark Winter exercise, simulation of bioterrorism conducted last June by Johns Hopkins University and Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), within six days from the outbreak of smallpox, 2000 people will be infected, 3 weeks from the outbreak, the number of people infected will rise to 16,000; and the infected area will be 25 states and 10 countries. Within 2 months, 3 million people are infected and 1 million people will die. Smallpox is out of control without vaccine.

Recent breakthroughs in biotechnology are opening new vistas in medicine, agriculture, and environmental science, but, at the same time, they are unwittingly providing rogue nations, terrorist groups, cults, and even individuals with inexpensive tools to fashion new and more potent bioweapons.

2. A New Perspective of Biological Warfare

A new perspective on the threat is provided by a recent report from the US Commission on National Security in the 21st Century. It singles out bioweapons as perhaps the greatest threat that the United States might face in this century. Admiral Stansfield Turner, former Director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), believes that, besides nuclear weapons, the only other weapon class with the capacity to bring the nation no point of non-recovery is biological weapons.

In 1993, the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment illustrated this threat in their estimate that 100 grams of anthrax released upwind of a large American city—say Washington DC—could cause between 130, 000 and three million deaths, depending on weather and other variables.

Recombinant DNA designer weapons can be created in many ways. The new technologies can be used to program genes into infectious micro-organism to increase their antibiotic resistance, virulence, and environmental stability. It is also possible to insert lethal genes into harmless micro-organism, resulting in biological agents that the body recognizes as friendly and does not resist. It is even possible to insert genes into organism that affect regulatory functions that control mood, behavior, and body temperature.

Scientists say they may be able to clone selective toxins to eliminate specific racial or ethnic groups whose genotypical makeup predisposes them to certain disease patterns. Genetic engineering can also be used to destroy specific strains of species of agricultural plants or domestic animals, if the intent is to cripple the economy of a country. Although mad-cow disease and genetically modified food are not bioweapons, we can imagine how easily general public can go to panic with uncertainty of food.

Unlike nuclear technologies, genetically engineered organism can be developed and produced cheaply, and employed effectively in many diverse setting, and it requires far less scientific expertise

Besides, because of the nature of this particular category of experimentation, there is no adequate way to properly distinguish between peaceful uses and military uses.

3. Brain Drain of Scientists from Former Soviet Union

Heightened interest in bioterrorism by a number of nations can be attributed in significant part to the massive research and development of bioweapon program conducted by former Soviet Union.

After the end of Cold War, the West first learned from high-level Soviet defectors that in 1972, when other countries were ending their programs, the Soviet Union opted to expand and modernize its biological-weapons program and to begin to develop genetically engineered pathogens that could serve as weapons.

Biopreparant, an ostensibly civilian operation, recruited outstanding scientist throughout the country; at its peak it employed over 30,000 people. Another 15,000 scientists were employed in a special military program, and 10,000 more were in an agricultural program that intended to device organism to attack crops. Besides major research and developments efforts, Biopreparat’s agenda included manipulation of microbes, manufacture of tons of dried anthrax spores and a number of other agents, and establishment of an industrial capacity for the large-scale production of smallpox virus and antibiotic-resistant strains of plague.

After the collapse of Soviet Union,a large number of Russian scientists have lost their jobs. They left these extensive biological-weapons complex of the former Soviet Union and have been actively recruited by other countries.

Ken Alibek, director of Biopreparent at former Soviet Union, exiled to the US after the Cold War and testified that Biopreparant was the Soviet Union’s Manhattan Project. He also said that these scientists could teach a terrorist group how to make devastating germ weapons from a few handfuls of backyard dirt and some widely available lab equipments.

Thirty years ago, there were only four countries known to be working with biological weapons. Now, however, there are thought to be as many as 12 to 14. These countries include Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, and Sudan.

4. Iraq

Iraq admits that they have developed a major program for research and production of biological weapons, primarily anthrax and botsulinum toxin.

The United Nation’s inspectors discovered that Iraq had stockpiled massive amounts of germ warfare agents and was preparing to use them during the Persian Gulf War. Saddam Hussein’s government had prepared what it was called the great equalizer, an arsenal of twenty-five missile warheads carrying more than 11,000 pounds of biological agents, including deadly botsulism poison and anthrax germs. An additional 33,000 pounds of agents were placed in bombs to be dropped from military aircraft. Had the germ warfare agents been deployed, the results would have been as catastrophic as those visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the dropping of the atomic bombs in 1945.

5. Terrorist Attck – Aum Shinrikyo

It is generally agreed that overt use of a biological weapon by a nation-state is unlikely if for no other reason than the fear of severe retribution by the rest of the world.

However, because the production of biological weapons requires only a modest amount of readily procurable equipment, comparatively little space and few personnel, it is a potential weapon for use by any of a number of extremist groups with intent on inflicting large number of casualties.

Two groups that have used or threatened to use biological weapons are Osama bin Laden group and the Japanese religious cult, Aum Shinrikyo.

Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas in here Kasumigaseki subway station in the heart of Tokyo in 1995. It killed 12 people, injured hundreds more and terrified millions. Aum had sought to aerosolize anthrax and botsulium toxin eight times throughout Tokyo in its mad efforts to hasten the apocalypse.

The sarin attack and the subsequent investigation alerted the world the rising importance of new type of terrorist: small groups of disaffected individuals who sought no political advantage from their actions, just chaos.

6. BWC

The Biologic and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) is the only legal framework that aims at eliminating biological weapons internationally.

This treaty was initiated by President Nixon of the United States and was signed by 144 nations in 1972. This agreement was epoch-making in those days prohibiting the development, production, stockpiling, or acquisition of biological agents or toxins.

However, as was discovered after the Cold War, its terms were flagrantly violated both by the former Soviet Union and Iraq. They were the ratified countries of BWC. Although the Convention mandates that no country undertake research on or production of biological weapons, there are no provisions or procedures for the verification and enforcement. Countless meetings over a period of many years have so far failed to identify suitable mechanisms that countries could agree upon. Despite the perceived threat of biological weapons that has been highlighted by the anthrax attacks in the U.S. last fall, the review conference on the BWC in Geneva broke down in disarray last December.

View from the U.S., who opposed to the treaty, the verification mechanisms outlined in the protocol would do little to uncover violations of the treaty or to deter cheaters, while potentially compromising legitimate biodefense activities and the commercial efforts of the U.S. pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries.

7. Provision: << What Can Be Done >>

Although strengthening the functions of the BWC is desirable, it is will never be enough. I have five proposals:

First.- Enact national criminal legislation against prohibited biological weapons activities. These should be a basic responsibility of national and local governments in all countries.

Second – Build national oversight mechanism for security and genetic engineering of pathogens.

Third – Improve international disease control

Disease epidemics in the modern world are more than national problems: they are potentially threats to international security. We need to develop an international surveillance network of epidemiologists and laboratories to quickly investigate and determine the cause of disease epidemics wherever they might occur.

Fourth – We need to develop a strategic plan to prevent the brain-drain of scientists from former Soviet Union. The U.S., E.U. and Japan has co-founded International Science & Technology Center to aid these scientists. We need to develop a more strategic and effective plan.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that we have to establish code of ethical conduct among scientists. It is imperative to build universal consensus, particularly among scientists, that the development, production, or dissemination of biological weapons by any persons, laboratories, or governments would be regarded by the world community as one of the most serious of all crimes.

Therefore, we need to promote responsible study, use, modification, and shipment of pathogens in our education system, professional associations of scientists and research laboratories in each nation.

8. Lessons of Japan:

The promotion of science and technology is one of the top priorities of the Koizumi Cabinet. Since Japan does not have natural resources and an available workforce, the government has or will set up a national goal becoming the advanced Science & Technology Oriented Nation of the world. Prime Minister Koizumi has responded by doubling government funding for competitive research and development (R&D) over the next five years.

Japan is the first country that experienced a nuclear weapon attack in war and the first country that experienced a major bio-chemical weapon attack by terrorists Aum Shinrikyo. We have to reflect our experience to prevent the misuse of science & technology. However, it is known that Japan was not well prepared against bioterrorism until another terrorist attack using anthrax occurred in the U.S. last fall. As a nation that aims to be an Advanced S&T oriented Nation, Japan must responsibly assure and promote peaceful use of life science nationally and internationally.

After the disaster of atomic bombs in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell initiated movements to prevent the catastrophic consequences of nuclear weapons and the Pugwash Conference was founded. We are now at the point to appreciate its precepts.

A new type of Pandora’s box is to be opened. Rather than shrinking back, we must mobilize our whole intellect and wisdom as human being. I believe that it is our generation’s responsibility to harness the bioweapons at this early stage of genetic revolution, in order to light our human’s future.




Kazuaki Shimotomai



下斗米 一明


米国三井物産ワシントンDC事務所 副所長

View More
View More