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Viruses, Epidemics and Experiments: The History of Biowarfare

Published: February 11, 2020
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The use of bacteria, viruses and other biological agents as weapons of war has a long and gut-wrenching history. From the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, using corpses to poison water wells in 1155 AD, to the Mongols catapulting the dead bodies of plague victims into the besieged city of Caffa in 1346, there are many examples of early, rudimental forms of biological warfare. An infamous use of biological warfare occurred in 1763, when British forces deliberately provided Native Americans with smallpox-contaminated blankets, producing a major outbreak of the disease. 

Despite these early examples however, it was not until the 20th century that biological warfare truly became scientifically callous. During the First World War, the German military was a notable practitioner of this art of warfare, although still in a somewhat haphazard manner. Certain operations by Germany aimed at infecting animals and/or the feed of animals in enemy nations with anthrax and glanders (a type of infectious disease). Fast forward a few decades however, and biological warfare had reached new depths in many countries.  

The Japanese were particularly interested in this area of warfare, intensifying their efforts during the 1930s and through the Second World War. In 1939, the Japanese tried to acquire yellow fever virus from the Rockefeller Institute in New York. One of the most prominent advocates of the use of biowarfare was the Japanese Surgeon General and microbiologist, Shiro Ishii, who went on to head the central unit of Imperial Japan’s biological warfare programme during WWII: Unit 731, which was based in occupied China. As part of their biowarfare program, the Japanese army tested a minimum of 25 biological agents on civilians and prisoners of war, with operations including the poisoning of over 1,000 Chinese water wells with typhus and cholera, and dropping fleas infested with plague on Chinese cities. At least thousands of people were killed by this programme, with some even arguing that approximately 200,000 Chinese were killed. 

What makes all of this worst however is that fact that the US government gave immunity to many of these Japanese biowarfare officers in exchange for getting the data from the Japanese biological warfare programme, meaning that many escaped war crime charges unjustly. This of course is reminiscent of Operation Paperclip, when the US brought 700 scientists from Nazi Germany to America in order to work on scientific projects, including space exploration. In relation to North America itself, one of the earliest biowarfare labs was founded in 1940 under private ownership, with Sir Frederick Banting, winner of the Nobel Prize for co-discovering insulin, playing a prominent role in this facilities establishment. 

There are also numerous examples of militaries conducting biological warfare experiments on their own, unsuspecting citizens.  In 1950 for instance, US authorities secretly conducted a biological warfare experiment in San Francisco, through spraying microbes into the atmosphere to test the impact a bioweapon attack would have on the city of 800,000 people. This test potentially resulted in the death of one citizen, who was infected with one of the types of bacteria used in the experiment, with the patient dying after the infection spread to his heart. Another incident occurred in the 1960s, when the US Army and the CIA conducted a biowarfare experiment on the New York subway. The test consisted of bulbs filled with an unidentified simulated poison being thrown on the tracks of two lines, testing how the simulated poison spread through the subway network. In Britain between 1961 and 1968, the Ministry of Defense sprayed E. coli and other bacteria along the southern coast of England in order to mimic anthrax, with millions unknowingly exposed to the germs. 

Aside from civilians being used as guinea pigs by biowarfare units, biological warfare programmes can also pose another risk to civilians: in the form of pathogens accidentally escaping from biowarfare facilities. One example of this scenario occurred in Soviet Russia in 1979, when an epidemic of anthrax broke out in the city of Sverdlovsk. Initially, Soviet authorities attempted to cover-up the incident by arguing that meat from anthrax-infected animals had caused the outbreak. It was not until decades later that it was revealed that the epidemic was the result of an accident at a biological warfare facility in the area, potentially stemming from a clogged air filter not being replaced, resulting in an aerosol of anthrax being released, killing at least 66 people. 

Decades from now, we can be sure that there will be revelations pertaining to biological warfare tests, and accidents, in our own time, as this is the pattern history reveals. 

 

Sources:

Barnett, A. (April 21 2002) Millions were in germ war tests, The Guardian – https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/apr/21/uk.medicalscience 

Frischknecht F. (2003). The history of biological warfare. Human experimentation, modern nightmares and lone madmen in the twentieth century. EMBO reports4 Spec No(Suppl 1), S47–S52 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1326439/ 

Hilts, P. (Nov. 18 1994) Deaths in 1979 Tied to Soviet Military, New York Times - https://www.nytimes.com/1994/11/18/world/deaths-in-1979-tied-to-soviet-military.html 

Horrock, N. (Sept. 19 1975) Senators Are Told of Test Of a Gas Attack in Subway, New York Times– https://www.nytimes.com/1975/09/19/archives/senators-are-told-of-test-of-a-gas-attack-in-subway-engineer-says.html 

Kristof, N. (March 17, 1995) Unmasking Horror -- A special report.; Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity, New York Times

https://www.nytimes.com/1995/03/17/world/unmasking-horror-a-special-report-japan-confronting-gruesome-war-atrocity.html

Loria, K. (Sept. 25, 2016) Over and over again, the military has conducted dangerous biowarfare experiments on Americans, Business Insider – https://www.businessinsider.com/military-government-secret-experiments-biological-chemical-weapons-2016-9?r=US&IR=T 

Riedel S. (2004). Biological warfare and bioterrorism: a historical review. Proceedings (Baylor University. Medical Center)17(4), 400–406 - https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1200679/ 

Walker, A. (Nov. 21 2005) Project Paperclip: Dark side of the Moon, BBC News – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/4443934.stm 

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