The military use of harmful biological agents such as pathogenic bacteria or viruses.

From the BioTech Dictionary at For further information see the BioTech homenode.

Biological warfare is the military use of microorganisms and toxins (poisonous chemical by-products) in order to kill or sicken humans, animals or plants. Some people expand the definition to include all dangerous organisms, such as when Hannibal of Carthage employed venomous snakes at Pergamene. However the terminology is restricted to describe the following agents:


  • Variola: Causes smallpox. Highly infectious and resilient in the air. Few people have immunity, and initial symptoms are hard to diagose. North Korea possibly has a covert program to cultivate variola (Russia and America have declared stocks). Upto 30% lethality.
  • Viral Encephalides. Includes Venezuelan equine encephalitis (VEE) virus, Western equine encephalitis (WEE) virus, and eastern equine encephalitis (EEE). Varying lethality and potency.
  • Arenaviridae, Bunyaviridae, Filoviridae and Flaviviridae viruses: Simple RNA viruses that target blood vessels and induce viral hemorrhagic fevers, and potentially internal bleeding. Nasty stuff that survive as airborne particles, and their flu-like symptoms are easy to mask. Includes Lassa fever, Ebola, Marburg, Yellow fever and Dengue fever.


  • Bacillus anthracis: Causes anthrax. Cannot be passed between people. Difficult to effectively create.
  • Yersinia pestis: Causes plague. May be airborne, or passed through flea-bites. Sounds bad, but highly treatable with antibiotics.
  • Vibrio cholerae: Causes cholera.
  • Coxiella burnetii: Causes Q-fever. Highly resilient and infectious sporelike organism.


  • Botulinum: Highly dangerous and easy to weaponise. Iraq admitted to producing these weapons in 1995.
  • Ricin: A protein derived from the beans ofcastor plants. Easy to produce, but not as dangerous as botulinum.

    History of Biological Warfare

    The following armies and organisations have used biological warfare:
    The Tartars (1346): Catapulted its plague-ridden dead over the walls of the city of Kaffa. Possibly the worst case of collateral damage in history, as it led to the Black Death reach Europe.
    The Russians (1710): Russians try the same Tartar tactic with their battles with the Swedes in the Great Northern War at Rezal.
    The English (1767): The ol' give-the-natives-the-smallpox-infected-blanket trick. It helped the English at Fort Carlillon
    The Confederates (1860): Uncle Billy wrote about fouling ponds by shooting animals and dumping their carcasses in them.
    The Germans (1915): Anton Dilger, a German trained doctor living in the United States, attempts to spread glanders amongst horses being exported to Britain for the war effort. He fails, flees to Mexico and is killed by the Spanish flu.
    The Japanese (1940s): Plague-infected fleas are dispersed by airplane over several Chinese cities, causing the deaths of 120 civilians.
    The Mau-Mau (1950s): Used plant toxins to kill livestock in their battle with British settlers.
    The Rajneeshee (1984): Laced salad bars in Oregon with salmonella in order to influence the outcome of county elections.
    ??? (2001): Anthrax-infected mail is sent to media and political personalities in the United States, killing five people.

    Many countries, including the Russia, China, United States, Israel, Iran, Libya, North Korea and Syria are believed to be running covert biological warfare programs. Iraq discontinued its biological warfare program after the first Gulf War.

    Problems of Biological Warfare

    Ideally biological warfare can decimate opposing legions, but non-lethal epidemics can be more effective in advancing military goals. The enemy is left confused, disrupted and intimidated (and often incontinent). Soldiers need to be evacuated and treated, which ties down medical and transport resources. Citizens fail to turn up to work and resources are tied down evacuating and treating soldiers. Armies, in the eyes of a pathologist, are high mobile incubators that can serve as a disease-spreading vector. Stopping an epidemic effectively may require a country to reduce its military capacity to wage war.

    Easily said than done. The most obvious problem with biological warfare is that disease respects no frontline and could just as easily infect the user of a biological weapon as well as infecting the target.

    Secondly biological agents need to be weaponised, that is, converted into a practical form so it can cause damange. After being dispersed it needs to remain potent in the air or water long enough to infect the enemy, without sunlight or moisture rending it ineffective. The agent must be small and invasive enough bypass the human body's natural defences. An anthrax spore, for example, after being inhaled by an unsuspecting victim, still needs to be small enough to weave around the cilia hairs in the windpipe before it can reach and infect the lungs. And if they are too small (under half a micrometre), electrostatic charges will cause them to harmlessly clump together.

    The equipment needed to store and disperse a biological agent is not going to be a hardy contraption with few moving parts that anybody with ten years of education can master. A biological weapon would most likely be made up of fine and delicate instruments that need to survive the rough and tumble of battlefield conditions. Soldiers will need to get close enough to the enemy to use it, and while dodging bullets they will need steady hands too to avoid dropping a petrie dish containing a lethal cocktail of contaminants. It is doubtful that modern armies today would want to catapult corpses.

    And biological warfare is illegal too. The 1925 Geneva Protocol (or the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare , and not as commonly thought and misspelt, the Geneva Convention) prohibits its use of biological weapons. Furthermore the Biological and Toxin Warfare Convention of 1972 prohibits the development, stockpiling and use of biological agents in a form or quantity that could turn them into weapons.

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