Was the black plague spread through Europe by biological warfare?

  Biological warfare

Plagued by weapons
Biological weapons may seem a modern phenomenon, but they have a long, ugly history. We extracted some "highlights" from "Biological Warfare: A Historical Perspective," (see the bibliography), written by experts from the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. That's headquarters for U.S. defense against bio-weapons.

14th century: During an attack on Kaffa (now Feodossia, Ukraine), Tatar armies catapult comrades who died of bubonic plague into the city. The defenders are infected, and they flee, apparently carrying plague to Europe. Thus the second outbreak of "black death" in Europe may be partly blamed on biological warfare.

1763: During the French and Indian Wars, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, commander of British forces in North America, directs that smallpox-bearing blankets be given to enemy tribes in the Ohio River Valley. Nobody knows whether a devastating smallpox epidemic that happens almost simultaneously is due to the infamous blankets -- or natural transmission.

World War I: Germany aims an ambitious biological weapons project at its enemies' livestock. Anthrax and glanders (both bacterial diseases) are used to infect sheep that will be shipped to Russia. Germany also tries to infect American horses that will be shipped to the Western front.

1925: In response to biological and chemical attacks during World War I, the Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, is signed. The treaty prohibits the use of such weapons, but not their development or storage, and provides for no inspection. The treaty is signed by the Soviet Union, France, and Great Britain; the United States does not ratify until 1975.

1932-1945: Japan employs more than 3,000 scientists and support staff in its In a 1941 attack on China, Japan mistakenly killed 1,700 of its own soldiers with biological weapons biological weapons project in occupied China. Prisoners are deliberately infected with several biological agents, and at least 10,000 die. Up to 11 Chinese cities are attacked with anthrax, cholera, salmonella and other agents. A 1941 attack on Changteh kills at least 1,700 Japanese troops, demonstrating that biological weapons are tricky to use.

1942: The U.S. begins an offensive biological weapons program at Camp Detrick, Md. Tests with anthrax and other pathogens are hampered by a lack of safe enclosures. Non-pathogenic test organisms escape, and a large-scale production of bio-weapons is not attempted. After the war, efforts continue at the renamed Fort Detrick and Pine Bluff, Ark.

1949-1968: U.S. surreptitiously tests dispersal of non-pathogenic agents (as stand-ins for biological weapons) in New York City, San Francisco and elsewhere. By the late 1960s, according to George Christopher and co-authors at the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases, the "U.S. military had developed a biological arsenal that included numerous bacterial pathogens, toxins, and fungal plant pathogens that could be directed against crops to induce crop failure and famine." (See Biological Warfare: A Historical Perspective, in the bibliography).

1975-1981. The United States accuses the Soviet Union of using a biological toxin against enemies in Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan. These so-called "yellow rain" attacks are eventually traced to bee feces. (You laugh -- but what's a swarm of bees supposed to do?)

1969: President Richard Nixon ends the U.S. biological weapons program, and pledges the nation will never use biological weapons under any circumstances. The entire arsenal is destroyed by 1973, except for seed stocks held for research purposes.

1972: The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction is signed by more than 100 countries, going into effect in 1975. Signatories include Iraq and all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

1979: Escaped bacteria from the ongoing Soviet bio-war effort cause an anthrax epidemic that kills at least 66 people in and near the city of Sverdlovsk (later called Ekaterinaburg).

1984: The Rajneeshee religious cult intentionally contaminates salad bars in Oregon restaurants with Salmonella, causing 751 cases of enteritis -- gut infections. Forty-five of these people need hospitalization.

1991: About 150,000 U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf area are vaccinated against anthrax, a biological weapon in Iraq's arsenal. Iraq's bio-weapons are deployed, but not used during the Gulf War.

1995: The Aum Shinrikyo cult attacks Tokyo subways with the nerve gas sarin, killing 12 and injuring 5,000. Investigators learn the cult is also working with several biological warfare agents, including anthrax and botulism toxin.

1997: Iraq again rebuffs United Nations weapons inspectors, who may be closing in on secret biological weapons facilities.

Feb. 18, 1998: Two men, one of them a microbiologist, are arrested in Nevada and charged with possessing anthrax. The men are released when the sample tests out as anthrax vaccine.

Feb. 25, 1998, a PrimeTime Live report on NBC news interviews a former Soviet biological warfare official who defected in 1992. Ken Alibek, once named Kanatjan Alibekov, told The New York Times (see "Soviet Defector Warns ..." in the bibliography) that the Russian program, despite official cancellations in 1990 and 1992, is still doing offensive research. "We can say Russia continues research in this area to maintain its military biological potential. They keep safe their personnel, their scientific knowledge. And they still have production capability." Alibek defected in 1992, and U.S. intelligence officials are uncertain whether Russia is still doing offensive research, or only the kind of legal, defensive research now going on in the United States. While some of Alibek's assertions are challenged, his concern that former colleagues may be helping rogue states or terrorists develop biological weapons is not.

What are the prospects for controlling biological weapons?


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