Why are certain viruses classed as threats to the government?
Ever since life arose on Earth approximately 3.8 billion years ago, organisms have constantly created new ways to kill each other. Any organism that makes use of toxins, whether it is viruses or even snake poison, is engaging in a form of biological warfare. Humans who engage in biological warfare do so by taking advantage of these toxin-producing organisms.
Biological warfare is often called germ warfare. It involves the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as viruses and bacteria, with the intent to kill or harm humans and creatures, as an act of war. The types of biological agents that are used are called bio-weapons. These are living organisms or replicating substances (such as viruses, for instance, which aren’t considered as living creatures).
You might be wondering why people would ever start a war using bioweapons when there are many more powerful, devastating choices of weaponry such as the nuclear bomb. Well bio-weapons have an incubation period, which means that they won’t act immediately. This has many advantages as it would be harder to catch the suspect, alongside how during the incubation period it would spread much further, affecting many more potential sufferers. Resulting in needing a smaller amount that is required than what would be required if chemical warfare agents are used. Since they are biological agents, they can easily be obtained, and there is no need for specialist equipment to process them. Furthermore, biological weapons have been given the name: “the poor man’s atomic bomb”. This is referring to the fact that terrorist groups and ‘rogue states’ can use these weapons to counter their more overwhelming military superiors such as the United States and other nuclear powers at an affordable price.
The most common form of biological warfare comes from the bacterium anthrax. Anthrax bacterium produces lethal spores, and if breathed in large numbers, inhalation anthrax can occur- a disease usually fatal to the sufferer who contracted it. There are a few reasons why anthrax is considered to be the choice agent in biological warfare. Firstly anthrax spores are readily found in nature, can easily be produced in a lab and can last for a long time in an environment- in fact can be viable for up to 100 years if conditions are kept dry and out of sunlight. As mentioned prior, an important benefit of biological weapons is that they are released quietly and without anyone knowing, making it hard to identify the suspect involved in the attack. This is true with anthrax as it does exactly that. The microscopic pores could be put into powders, sprays, food and water. Due to their small size, it’s near impossible to see, smell or taste them. Finally as anthrax has been used as a weapon before- most notably in 2001, when powdered anthrax spores were deliberately put into letters which were mailed in the US postal system- it’s already known anthrax is effective as a biological weapon.
Another potential biological weapon is the plague. The plague is an infection that affects a handful of people in the US every year and between a few hundred and a few thousand annually around the world. Most people survive a plague infection, since it can almost always be treated with antibiotics. But researchers, bioweapons experts, and governments still worry that the plague could be turned into a deadly bioweapon, especially if someone with terroristic intent were to find or engineer a strain that couldn’t be treated with common drugs. The plague bacteria, Yersinia pestis, mutates regularly like any other organism. Drug-resistant strains have emerged several times in the wild. For that reason, as Stat News’ Eric Boodman explains in a profile of wildlife biologist and plague detective David Wagner, there’s always a scramble to identify plague strains when they emerge. By analyzing the bacteria, researchers can see if the bacteria has picked up antibiotic-resistant genes and check whether the strain is wild or engineered.
In terms of COVID-19, there have been many conspiracies regarding the production of SARS-CoV-2 in a research laboratory located in Wuhan, China, where the virus is believed to have originated. Whether or not someone believes these conspiracy theories, it is instructive to consider whether the SARS-CoV-2 virus would make a so-called “good” bio-weapon. Many countries around the world (including the United States, Iraq, former Soviet Union, United Kingdom, Japan, and Canada) used to have biological weapons programs, and some others (China, North Korea, and Iran) are suspected of continuing to develop biological weapons.
This virus can be considered as a category A threat, as COVID is relatively easy to get hold of – provided the fact that it is spreading currently across the whole world.Most category A agents can be manufactured in large quantities so they can be sprayed over a battlefield or a large population. Making bio-weapons requires either fermentation technology (similar to what’s used to make beer) or production in cell culture. Viruses like SARS-CoV-2 are harder to grow than many bacteria,such as anthrax spores, but it can be done. A very small amount of the virus is needed for it to spread to a high proportion of a population, which is already evident by the pace of the spread in different countries. However, whether this virus is as effective as other bioweapons still remains a question. It has been reported that amongst those who have contracted the virus, 40% of the sufferers have been asymptomatic; so it remains a question whether this would produce a serious drastic effect on the population. Moreover, these bioweapons are usually spread by air in different forms, so studying the chances of the virus living in air is vital. For SARS-CoV-2, chances of survival in air is not high. It has been reported the virus is very good at spreading indoors, but outdoors it is not as effective, particularly in sunlight. So the question remains – was the virus actually released with the intent of being used as a bioweapon?
Biological warfare is as old as civilization. Large forces always have conflict with one another. It will not be surprising if they use bioweapons in order to place revenge on a certain part of the world. There is a heightened threat of biological weapons being used for biological warfare or bioterrorism. Many of the microorganisms and toxins that may be used as such biological weapons can easily be acquired and mass produced. Dissemination of aerosols of these biological agents can produce mass casualties.During the year 2000, the Clinton administration allocated $1.4 billion to combat both biological and chemical warfare – “a good beginning but not enough”, according to scientist Steven Block, who believes more should be spent in America’s anti-terrorist intelligence effort and its emergency response capability. After all, the scientist worries that terrorist groups in Russia can get access to frozen samples of the virus smallpox – if these samples get into the wrong hands, the consequences could be disastrous. As the world is heading, with continuous conflicts between powerful states, are biological attacking agents something our community should be concerned about?