History of Biological Warfare
Anthrax, Other Organisms Used for Centuries as Weapons of War

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Oct. 18, 2001 -- In the beginning, there may have been anthrax.

"... Behold, the hand of the Lord will come with a very severe murrain on your livestock which are in the field, on the horses, on the donkeys, on the camels, on the herds, and on the flocks..." Exodus 9:3

Epidemiologists have suggested the first outbreaks might have occurred in Biblical times. The book of Exodus describes 10 plagues that affected both humans and animals in Egypt. The fifth plague was a murrain, a cattle-pest, which killed the Egyptians' livestock. In the sixth plague, boils erupted on men and beasts. One of the symptoms of anthrax -- also known as 'woolsorter's disease' -- is boils.

Other historical instances of what is now called bioterrorism include:

Sixth Century B.C.
One of the earliest reported uses of bioterrorism. Assyrians poison enemy wells with rye ergot, a fungus that causes convulsions if ingested.

Plague breaks out in the Tartar army during its siege of Kaffa (at present-day Feodosia in Crimea). Attackers hurl the corpses of plague victims over the city walls, causing an epidemic that forces the city to surrender. Some infected Kaffa residents who left the city may have inadvertently started the Black Death pandemic.

During the French and Indian wars, it's suspected British forces distribute smallpox-laden blankets to native American Indians who were loyal to the French.

German scientist Robert Koch proves that microorganisms cause infectious diseases by injecting anthrax spores into mice. The mice contract the disease.

In France, Louis Pasteur develops the first successful vaccine to prevent anthrax in animals.

In what may be the 20th-century's first bioweapon, glanders is used by German undercover agents to infect the livestock of Allied countries with the highly contagious B. mallei agent. Glanders causes several fatal infections in humans around the turn of the 20th century before an international program of slaughtering infected animals all but eliminates the disease.

Japan starts a biological warfare program at a facility known as Unit 731 in occupied Manchuria. After World War II, investigations show Japanese researchers used various microorganisms -- including aerosolized anthrax -- on prisoners and Chinese nationals.

A plague epidemic in China and Manchuria follows reported overflights by Japanese planes dropping plague-infected fleas.

Gruinard Island, off the coast of Scotland, is the subject of a biological warfare experiment when the British military drop bombs loaded with anthrax spores. The contamination of the island with viable anthrax spores was so great that in 1986 it had to be decontaminated with 280 tons of formaldehyde and 2,000 tons of seawater. The island is now declared fully decontaminated.

The U.S. begins an offensive biological program at Camp Detrick, Md. Five thousand bombs filled with Bacillus anthracis spores are produced.

The U.S. begins developing countermeasures such as vaccines, to protect troops from biological warfare.

U.S. President Richard M. Nixon signs an executive order to stop all offensive biological and toxin weapon research and production.

All stockpiles of biological agents and munitions from the U.S. program are destroyed.

The United States and other countries sign what's known as the Biological Weapons Convention. It prohibits the stockpiling of biological agents for offensive military purposes. The former Soviet Union and Iraq are signatories to this accord.

A biological weapons plant in Sverdlovsk, Russia accidentally releases airborne anthrax spores. There are 66 confirmed deaths, but the actual number of those killed is unknown. Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico determines the spores contained at least four different strains of anthrax.

The Rajneeshee cult, followers of Baghwan Sri Rajneesh, contaminates salad bars in an Oregon town with salmonella. More than 750 people become seriously ill. The group was trying to influence a local election by incapacitating voters.

U.S. troops are vaccinated for anthrax before the Persian Gulf War.

After the Gulf War, the United Nations conducts its first inspection of Iraq's biological weapons capabilities. Representatives of the Iraqi government confirm to a U.N. team that they had conducted research into the use of anthrax, botulism and other toxins.

The Aum Shinrikyo cult releases the nerve agent sarin in the Tokyo subways, killing 12 and sickening thousands. The group attempted on at least 10 occasions to release biological warfare agents in aerosol form.

Letters containing anthrax spores are mailed to NBC News and the offices of Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) at the U.S. Capitol. At American Media in Florida, one person dies after contracting anthrax. Anthrax spores are found at N.Y. Gov. George Pataki's offices in New York City.

Other Resources

Historial Trends Related to Bioterrorism: An Empirical Analysis by Jonathan B. Tucker, Monterey Institute of International Studies, Monterey, Calif.