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The Telegraph May 13, 2003
Arunabha Sengupta

With World War I, the idea of bio-terrosism came to the forefront. The horror appeared again and again in later conflicts in Laos, Korea, Afghanistan, Ethiopia and against the Kurds. Humanity disdained the use of gas and germs in future wars. However, that remained a mere dream.

The effects of bio-war can be deadly. Chlorine and phosgene can cause death by asphyxiation. Blistering agents cause inflammation of the mouth, throat, and form severe blisters on exposed skin. By 1945, the Germans developed organophosphorous compounds that could cause death by attacking the nervous system. Four of the five known potent nerve gas agents have their origin in Germany and were extensively field-tested in the concentration camps.

Ever since the contaminant nature of diseases like plague and small pox became known, warmongers have tried to use them as weapons. According to a World Health Organization study, if 50 kilograms of dried powder of anthrax in a suitable aerosol form were sprayed from a single lane over a large city of 5 million people, it would affect an area of at least 20 km downwind, making approximately 250,000 people sick and 100,000 dead. Biotechnology can now alter the genetic characteristics of naturally occurring bacteria and viruses and make them “weapons grade”. Toxins produced from plants or bacterial toxins can be used to cause mass destruction.

Static targets

The start up cost of developing these weapons of mass destruction is less than that for the sophisticated weaponry used today. Besides, such weapons programmes can be carried out without detection. Interestingly, in the first Hague peace conference in 1899, the members of the United Nations did not sign a supplementary resolution banning projectiles with chemical weapons on the grounds that the currently used weapons were cruel and inhuman and that the chemical weapons were not any more inhuman than the rest.

The fact is that these WMDs, particularly chemical weapons, have a limited role against a frontal military attack by a mechanized army equipped with sensors and protective suits. These weapons kill static masses and that too only when the wind direction is right. In Verdun, the Germans fired 110,000 chemical shells from about 1,000 artillery pieces before they could incapacitate the enemy. As the option of poisoning the drinking wells or having the foot soldiers drowsed with toxic fumes is no longer there, modern armies, alert and in full gear, have little to fear.

Epidemic alert

In fact, in protracted urban warfare, the invading forces can use non-lethal nerve gases to pacify hostility. So, if the smaller countries make deadly winds and poisons, the chances are that they will be used more effectively against civilian population and at times through terrorist groups, or secret cults. Bioterrorism wants some people to live in constant fear of being besieged by the unimaginable.

Any civilian population which has seen some terrorist incursions within its state needs to be observant. The defence research and development establishment of India has developed five types of protective systems for its troops and civilian population against organic threats like anthrax, cholera, plague, small-pox,viral haemorrhagic fever and bio-toxic threats like botulism.

Although it is impossible to provide protection against every type of attack, advances in technology now allow for a comprehensive counter-measures. In collaboration with the global outbreak alert and response network of the WHO, countries can install systems to detect and contain any outbreak of epidemics. The post 9/11 security augmentation have proved useful in at least two epidemics — the Ebola haemorrhagic fever in Gabon and SARS. The best defence against bioterrorism is perhaps an informed public that is not terrorized easily.