Biological warfare is the deliberate spreading of disease through humans, animals and/or plants. With the capability to indiscriminately kill thousands of people in a single use, biological weapons have been known as the "poor man's atom bomb".
The biological agents used in the weapons themselves may be:
- Bacteria: single-cell organisms that vary greatly in toxicity and infectivity;
- Viruses: consist of DNA and need other living organisms to replicate themselves. Viruses can mutate to adapt to their environments, either naturally or through genetic engineering, to increase their pathogenicity/virulence.
- Several types of rickettsiae and fungi are also listed as biological weapons.
Any nation (or indeed company) with a reasonably developed medical or pharmaceutical industry has the capacity to develop biological weapons. Therefore, it is possible that terrorist groups may have them or be seeking to obtain them. However, biological weapons are certainly recorded as being in the military arsenals of the US, Russia and many other big nations.
The Biological Weapons Convention entered into force in March 1975 after 22 governments had ratified it. The Convention bans the development, production, stockpiling or acquisition of biological agents or toxins of any type or quantity that do not have protective, medical or other peaceful purposes, or any weapons or means of delivery for such agents or toxins.
- background on biological weapons from Reaching Critical Will
- United Nations: text of the Biological Weapons Convention
- World Health Organisation: WHO guidance (2004) Public health response to biological and chemical weapons
- Federation of American Scientists: Introduction to Biological Weapons