Center for Strategic Decision Research


Biological Weapons in the 21st Century

Dr. Ken Alibek
President, Advanced Biosystems
Former Deputy Director of USSR Biopreparat

Many countries, including Great Britain, Canada, the United States, and the Soviet Union, have shown a significant interest in the possible use of biological weapons as an instrument of war. Now, as never before, biological weapons have become a real threat to the world's public health and economy. "The risk is real. The risk is increasing. Our vulnerability remains high," said United States Senator Bill Frist. While government, academic researchers, and the pharmaceutical industry are finding new ways to detect and combat bioterrorism, we must continue to increase our efforts to understand biological weapons and to analyze the threat they present. 


Biological weapons are mass-casualty weapons based on bacteria, viruses, rickettsiae, fungi, and toxins. Dozens of agents can be used to make a biological weapon, and each agent produces a markedly different disease. The diversity of biological weapons makes them distinct from nuclear, chemical, or conventional weapons. They can be used to achieve many goals: 

  • incite panic and fear; 
  • paralyze a population; 
  • overwhelm medical services; 
  • cause severe economic damage; 
  • cause illness or death; 
  • gain a military advantage; 
  • attract attention. 

Therefore, rogue states, organized terrorist groups, and deranged individuals find using biological weapons attractive, although for varying reasons. Rogue nations and well-organized and well-funded terrorist groups have the greatest likelihood of mounting a successful large-scale biological attack because of their access to microorganisms, sophisticated production and dissemination equipment, and scientific know-how. Carrying out such an attack would most likely be done through the most efficient but most difficult dissemination route, an airborne assault created by an explosion or spraying. 

There are three ways to deploy biological weapons: 

1. contaminating food and water supplies, which are ingested by the victims; 

2. releasing infected vectors, such as mosquitoes or fleas, which then bite the victims; 

3. creating an aerosol cloud, which is then inhaled by the victims. 

Water and Food Contamination. Water contamination is the least effective method for disseminating biological weapons, particularly in countries with efficient water-treatment systems. The effectiveness of a biological attack on a water supply would be limited both by the presence of disinfecting agents such as chlorine and by dilution of the biological agent in the enormous volume of water. 

Food contamination would most likely be used in a terrorist attack rather than in a military attack, since it is difficult to contaminate enough food to gain a military advantage. Agents that can be disseminated through both food and water contamination are those for which the intestinal tract serves as the portal of infection. 

Releasing infected vectors. This is not a particularly efficient dissemination method for military purposes but could be used by terrorists to disrupt and cause panic. The biological agent or agents would be limited to those that are naturally disseminated by vectors. 

Creating an Aerosol Cloud. For either military or terrorist purposes, creating an aerosol cloud is by far the most efficient and effective mode for deploying biological weapons. Aerosol spraying is the only method that can be used effectively against large target areas. Practically any biological-threat agent can cause infection via the lungs, infection that is often more severe and more lethal than the naturally occurring infection. Thus, effective biological-threat defense must first and foremost involve protection against aerosol attack. 

Aerosol biological weapons and techniques for their military deployment are usually designed to devastate large areas. Even a terrorist attack on a smaller scale has the potential to cause a significant number of casualties, as well as tremendous disruption and panic. 

The destructive potential of biological attacks stems from their peculiarities and uncertainties: 

  • A biological-weapon attack may go undetected for some time, until victims begin to fall ill. The lack of detection complicates diagnosis, treatment, and containment. 
  • Once a biological attack has been detected, additional time will likely pass before the causative agent is identified, again complicating diagnosis, treatment, and containment. 
  • It is difficult to determine the size and dimensions of a contaminated area, which makes it difficult to estimate the number of people exposed, identify those who were exposed, and determine where to conduct any necessary decontamination operations. 
  • The target population is not likely to be immune to the threat agent. 
  • No vaccine is available for most threat agents. If a vaccine is available, the majority of the population will not have been vaccinated because these agents generally do not present a significant public health threat. 
  • The few vaccines that do exist will be of very little use once an attack has taken place, since they take days to weeks to reach full effectiveness after inoculation. In addition, there are only limited stockpiles of vaccines against biological-threat agents. 
  • Treatment options are limited or nonexistent for the majority of biological-threat agents. 
  • Public and military health services are not equipped with the personnel, equipment, or drugs needed to handle a widespread epidemic. 
  • A biological attack will incite panic and result in an influx of patients-many of whom are not ill and were not exposed-to already overburdened health-care facilities. 

Thus, the potential results of a biological-weapons attack-whether against the military or the civilian population-are large numbers of diseased or dead people, a panicked populace, an overwhelmed health-care system, and the complete disruption of economic and military stability. 


In my opinion, any nation or terrorist truly determined to mount a biological attack will do so. Consider the case of Iraq: Despite unprecedented access to Iraqi facilities and an extensive inspection regime, attempts to wipe out Iraq's biological weapons capability were probably not successful, and were heavily dependent on the revelations of a high-ranking defector. The Soviet Union also was able to hide an enormous biological weapons program for years. 

While it is important to try to prevent biological attacks, improving available defenses will have the greatest impact on our nation's security in the long run. Unlike an attack with chemical, nuclear, or conventional weapons, a biological attack would most likely go undetected until health personnel identified an unusual outbreak of disease. The medical aspects of defense against biological weapons-disease surveillance and diagnosis, medical prophylaxis, and treatment-are crucial to our preparedness. 

Small terrorist groups may be able to mount a small attack such as an aerosol attack on an individual building or an attack involving an insect or human vector or food or water contamination. Even such a limited attack would have a dramatic psychological effect and result in disruption and a certain level of panic. The recent episodes in which anthrax spores were sent through the mail is an indication that hundreds of scientists and technicians know how to turn a vial of anthrax into a biological weapon. 

We must tackle the biological weapons threat from a scientific standpoint. We must revise our understanding of the threat in order to develop an adequate defense. Rather than respond to specific threats, which are variable and can change rapidly because of biotechnology, we should develop broad-spectrum measures that can address potential biological threats before they appear.


Biological weapons are in essence a medical problem, and thus require a medical solution. The ultimate goal of biodefense is to prevent suffering and loss of life, if biological weapons have minimal impact on the well-being of their targets, they will be ineffective and cease to be a threat. Therefore, we must concentrate on developing appropriate medical defenses. These efforts, as well as funds spent on education, research, and development, will pay for themselves many times over. 

We anticipate that the 21st century will be the century of biotechnology and information technology. This is a potent mix for the development of biological weapons. The rapid advances expected in microbiology, molecular biology, and genetic engineering will improve our lives-but they are all "dual-use" technologies that can also be used in biological weapons development. In addition, our increased knowledge of medicine and the functioning of the human body will enable us to improve human health and the quality of life-but it can be used to develop more sophisticated biological weapons. Finally, the explosive growth of information technology gives anyone with a computer instantaneous access to tremendous amounts of information-including techniques that can be used to develop biological weapons. 

We cannot, and should not, halt the progress of science and technology, but we must bear in mind that it is a double-edged sword. To protect ourselves from the threat of biological weapons, we must increase our awareness and understanding of the threat, strengthen current international agreements and, most importantly, we must develop new means to render such weapons useless.


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