Biological Weapons and Biological Weapons Convention

- Kalpana Chittaranjan


Biological and Toxin Weapons

"Weapons of mass destruction" (WMD) have been defined as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons (NBC) employed for the purpose of inflicting massive damage, including the killing of large numbers of civilians.1 The term consolidates nuclear, biological and chemical weapons into one category because, despite differences in their effects and use, they share enormous lethality and symbolism. WMD is an open-ended concept, potentially allowing for the development of other technologies of mass destruction. "Mass Destruction" is a relative term. In World War II, Allied fire bomb attacks on Dresden killed between 130,000 and 200,000 people with 1,400 aircraft sorties over two days.2 The atom bomb dropped over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, killed about 68,000 people and injured another 76,000.3 In a hypothetical scenario, a 1 megatonne hydrogen bomb over Detroit might kill 470,000 and injure 630,000.4 A single WMD then, can cause damage equivalent to that of hundreds or thousands of conventional high explosive or incendiary weapons.

Going by the above-mentioned definition, biological weapons (BW), alongwith nuclear weapons (NW) and chemical weapons (CW) are categorised as WMD. Consider the example of tularaemia, which is caused by the bacterium Pasteurella tularensis. The average size of this bacterium is about 0.2 by 0.5 microns. One cubic inch could contain slightly more than 780,000,000,000,000 of these bacteria; a baseball-sized container (about 12.5 cubic inches) could contain approximately 10,000,000,000,000,000 tuleraemia bacteria. If we assume that the contents of the baseball-sized container were disseminated and that 99.9 percent of the bacteria died, that still leaves 10,000,000,000,000 bacteria living. If the number of organisms needed to cause infection is ten, there would be enough bacteria to cause disease in a billion people.5 Though it is impossible to distribute the bacteria evenly, the example serves to demonstrate clearly that only a small amount is needed to cause mass destruction.

What then is a BW? A BW contains living organisms (as well as the means of their delivery) which is intended for use in warfare to cause death or disease and which for its effect depends on the ability to multiply in the person, animal or plant attacked, while toxins are poisonous products of organisms, which unlike biological agents are inanimate and not capable of reproducing themselves.6 Typically, a BW uses micro-organisms (i.e., bacteria or viruses) or toxins. While bacteria are single celled organisms that invade the human body, replicate and cause disease and death, viruses do the same, but are much smaller, consist of genetic material (DNA or RNA) and must invade a host cell to multiply, Poisonous substances that can be synthetically produced or derived from living organisms are toxins.7 Table I lists some of the biological agents usable as weapons against people.

List I8

Agent Purpose Downward Dead Incapacitated

reach (km)

Coxiella bumetti Incapacitant >20 150 125,000


Francisella Incapacitant >20 30,000 125,000



Bacillius anthracis Lethal agent >20 95,000 125,000


* (The scenario assumes a strike on a population centre of 500,000 people. Fifty kg. of agent are delivered in a line source upwind of the target and under optimal weather conditions).

Biological weapons have been used as weapons of war from early times, when centuries ago, soldiers threw plague-infested carcasses over the walls of enemy cities to infect the population within. Hostile native Indian tribes were given blankets by White settlers, which were infected with smallpox. It was also used for assassinations for which there are documented cases. More recently, claims have been made that biological weapons were used during World War I and World War II. Though most of the claims have not been proved, it is known that during and since World War II, dozens of diseases, primarily those caused by viruses or bacteria, have been studied as possible biological weapons.9 Both the Japanese and the Germans were known to have experimented on prisoners of war (POW). The Japanese programme (1936-45) was extensive and included research on weaponising the plague, anthrax, cholera, typhoid and paratyphoid fevers.10 In November 1994, it was confirmed that the Japanese Imperial Army had operated at least four BW units in China in World War II.11 In 1995, it was revealed that top secret experiments using BW killed at least 3,000 people from China, Korea, Mongolia and Russia but the exact number of deaths could have been ten times greater.12

List II13

Biological Weapons Agents

Agent Type Symptoms/effects Mortality Onset

Causative Agent (if untreated)



Bacllius anthracis Cough, difficulty 95-100% 2-4 days

(anthrax) breathing,exhaustion,

toxaemia, cyanosis,

terminal shock

Francisella tularensis Muscle ache, chills, 30-40% 2-4 days

(tularaemia) cough,acute respiratory

distress, exhaustion,


Coxiella burnetti Fever, pains, headache 0-1% 15-18 days

(Q fever)


Venezuelan equine Joint pain, chills, headache, 0-2% 2-5 days

encephalitis nausea, vomitting with

(VEE diarrhoea, sore throat



Botulinum Toxin Nausea, weakness, 60-90% 0.5-3 days

(botulism) vomitting, respiratory paralysis

Factors Responsible for Spread of BW

Who would want to possess BW and why? How does it compare with other WMD? The answers provide an insight into why the proliferation of BW is today a very real threat to global arms control and why urgent remedial measures are required towards its non-proliferation. When one considers that it is possible to deliver BW via a water supply with research having shown that it is feasible that drinking 100 ml of water from a reservoir of some 5 million litres capacity would cause serious infection or intoxication if as little as half a kilogram of salmonella, 5 kg of botulinum toxin, or 7 kg of staphylococcal enterotoxin has been introduced,14 it becomes clear why possessing BW seems such a viable proposition to vested interests that/who are inimical to world peace and stability. In the preceding example, to achieve the same effect with chemicals, 10 tonnes of potassium cyanide would be required.15 Thus, much smaller quantities of biological weapons would be required to cause the same damage as much larger amounts of chemical weapons.

Since micro-organisms are the basic material for BW, a fundamental concern is how easily this material can be produced. Also, weight-for-weight, BW agents can be hundreds to thousands of times more potent than chemical agents and can cause a variety of symptoms. A potential proliferator would find that BW provide a much cheaper route to WMD capability considering that NW are very expensive and that it (BW) is much more lethal than an equal quantity of CW. Almost all the technologies and materials required to produce BW are dual-use in nature and are widely available for commercial purposes. As an example, pharmaceutical production techniques can be adopted to produce biological agents. BW, like CW programmes, are much easier to conceal from international inspectors.

The specialised skills required for BW agent production are knowledge of microbiology and the fermentation process but such skills are now becoming increasingly widely available in the scientific and medical industry and open literature well describes new fermentation techniques. In addition, biological warfare agents can be cultivated by processes similar to those used for commercial biological products. Seed cultures for producing bacteria can be purchased from commercial vendors (for example, Iraq purchased cultures from the USA) or extracted from natural sources, including animals. Most of the equipment used in cultivating BW agents is also commercially available for producing beer, food products, pharmaceuticals, vaccines, biopesticides and other similar products. Computer-controlled fermenters, centrifugal separators and freeze and spray dryers are included in such equipment. As was the case in Iraq, biological agents can also be grown using laboratory glassware.

Among others, continuous-flow fermenters with computer controls, real-time sensors, feedback loops, which are modern methods using more advanced technologies, have vastly improved the productivity of firms manufacturing bacteriological products while also reducing the size of both the facilities required and the necessary capital investment. Recombinant-DNA techniques, similarly, have made possible the production of militarily significant quantities of certain lethal toxins. Though knowledge of how to manipulate new techniques to mass-produce classifical biological warfare agents such as anthrax and botulinum has now spread well beyond the industrial countries, they, however, remain at the vanguard of the biotechnology revolution with their continuing efforts to manipulate genes and alter the genetic composition of cells. The announcement, in early 1997, by a Scottish team of embryologists and biologists led by Dr Ian Wilmut that they had cloned "Dolly", the first sheep/mammal to be formed out of adult body parts, i.e., from cells that are not embryonic, is an example.

BW as Option for Terrorists

Biological and toxin weapon agents have been given the appellation of poor man's atomic bomb"16 and there is increasing concern that these weapons might be used by terrorists, including "state-sponsored" terrorism or for sabotage purposes.17 The prospect of terrorists acquiring an atom bomb is less than the possibility of their manufacturing or stealing biological weapons.

Compared with nuclear weapons, biological materials are more easily produced (or stolen), more difficult to detect, and usable against any target in which air can circulate. As has been mentiond, they are also less expensive to produce than nuclear weapons, less likely to be detected and potentially more reliable (since they can be field-tested with only a moderate risk to the group concerned). Unlike conventional weapons, they are not detectable by traditional anti-terrorist sensors, are easier to disguise, move and introduce into the target area, and permit the possibility of anonymous attacks.

Although chemical and biological agents have certain similarities— both are capable of airborne dispersal and are primarily effective against living organisms, whether humans, animals or plants—biological agents have several attractions. They are much more potent on a weight-for-weight basis than chemical warfare agents since under favourable environmental conditions they multiply and replicate in their victim.

Terrorists might also be attracted by the prospect of using much smaller, and less costly, amounts of biological agents to inflict a much larger number of casualties (whether fatal or incapacitated) over a greater area. If intent upon sabotage or widespread and indiscriminate contamination, they might wish to exploit the difficulty of detecting biological agents as well as their ability to pose a more extensive downwind threat than they could ever do with chemical agents. Whereas the typical downwind hazard distance for a chemical agent is about one kilometre, it is some hundreds of kilometres for biological agents, assuming comparable and favourable meteorological conditions. Chemical agents, especially nerve agents, tend to act more rapidly than biological agents, are less susceptible to sunlight, temperature and other environmental factors, and cannot cause epidemics in man which were appropriate to the terrorists' missions. They could use either live pathogens such as anthrax, or toxins such as botulinal toxin or ricin, which, as has been mentioned earlier, are inanimate and cannot multiply.

Alleged Development, Possession and/or Use of Biological Weapons in Recent Years

Iraq's biological and toxin weapon programme has demonstrated that the danger of proliferation of these weapon agents is real.18 Iraq is subject to the obligations of United Nations Resolution 687.19 Apart from Iraq, other countries alleged to be potential possessors of BW agents are China, India, Israel, North Korea, South Africa, Syria; "developers"—Libya; "potential developers" —Iran, Taiwan, of BW agents or "capable"—Belarus; "potentially capable" —Pakistan; or "possibly capable —South Korea, of developing such agents.20

An outbreak of human anthrax in the Soviet city of Sverdlorsk in April 1979 was linked to a suspected BW facility. In 1992, Russian President Boris Yeltsin admitted that the Soviet Union had maintained an offensive BW research programme.21 In 1995, allegations continued that the Government of Myanmar was using biological weapons on the Thai-Myanmar border against the Karen ethnic minority,22 but these allegations could not be confirmed. It was in August 1993 that the initial allegation had been made and the disease described was similar to cholera or shigella. The symptoms that had been present in those affected in 1993 reappeared in 1994 in people living in another area, 100 km south of Bilin.23 On March 20, 1995, the Sarin (a CW nerve gas) attack on the Tokyo underground by the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) group headed by its religious cult leader, Shoko Asahara, resulted in 12 deaths and 5,500 injured. Before this, members of this religious sect had reportedly experimented with biological agents by releasing small quantities of the lethal biological agent "anthrax" in Tokyo with no obvious lethal effect.24 In a news item telecast by CNN recently,25 it was reported that the Cuban government had accused the US government of carrying out a biological warfare against it by aerially spraying biological agents over farmers' crop fields in Central Cuba, thus, completely destroying vegetables that were eaten by caterpillars. The USA denied that the plane in question sprayed BW agents. Where China is concerned, it vehemently denied recent Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) allegations that it was the top global supplier of BW technology as well as of NW and CW technology.26

Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention

The "Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction," better known as the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention or by its acronymn BWC was negotiated from 1969-1971, opened for signature on April 10, 1972, at London, Moscow and Washington DC., and entered into force on March 26, 1975, with 43 member countries, upon ratification by the three depository states—the USA, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom.27

The treaty has 15 Articles and prohibits the development, production, stockpiling or acquisition by other means or retention of microbial or other biological agents, or toxins whatever their origin and method of production, of types and in quantities that have no justification of prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes, as well as weapons, equipment or means of delivery designed to use such agents or toxins for hostile purposes or in armed conflict. The destruction of the agents, toxins, weapons, equipment and means of delivery in the possession of the parties, or their diversion to peaceful purposes, should be effected not later than nine months after the entry into force of the convention.28

Summary of Articles of BWC29

1. No state to develop, produce, stockpile, or acquire biological agents, etc.

2. Each state to destroy existing stocks.

3. No transfer.

4. States parties required to take measures to prohibit domestic work.

5-7. Consultation, referral to Security Council, assistance to state which is attacked.

8. 1925 Geneva protocol still in effect (covers use).

9. Obligation to pursue chemical weapons treaty.

10. Use for peaceful purposes.

11-15. Amendment, duration (unlimited), entry into force, reviews, depositing.

As of January 1, 1997, the BWC had 140 member countries that had signed and 18 countries that had signed but not ratified.30 India ratified the BWC on July 5, 1974.31


The origin of the BWC can be traced back to the "Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare." better known as the 1925 Geneva Protocol which was signed at Geneva on June 17, 1925, and entered into force on February 8, 1928. The Protocol banned the use of "bacteriological methods of warfare." In conjunction with a ban on chemical weapons, efforts to ban the production of biological weapons took up many years of discussions in a variety of fora. The prevailing opinion had been that the possession of chemical and biological weapons should be prohibited simultaneously. The "Report on Chemical and Bacteriological (Biological) Weapons and the Effects of Their Possible Use" was issued by the UN Secretary General in 1969. The report concluded that these weapons might have irreversible consequences for human beings and the environment. In 1970, the World Health Organisation (WHO) published the "Report on Health Aspects of Chemical and Biological Weapons," which also pointed out that the effects of use of chemical and biological weapons are subject to a high degree of uncertainty and unpredictability. However, several Western countries sponsored the proposal that there should be a ban on biological weapons only and their main reason for separate treatment of these two categories of weapons was that a ban on biological weapons did not require intrusive verification and, therefore, could be concluded quickly, without serious risks which was not the case with chemical weapons. This method of approach was adopted by the Eighteen-Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC) and its successor, the Conference of the Committee on Disarmament (CCD), where the negotiations were taking place. On July 10, 1969, the UK had submitted a draft to the ENDC calling for the elimination of biological weapons only, which was supported by the USA.

US President Richard Nixon renounced the development, production and stockpiling of BW, irrespective of a possible international agreement and announced his intention to ratify the Geneva Protocol on November 25, 1969. On February 14, 1970, the US government formally renounced also the production, stockpiling and use of toxins for war purposes. It stated that military programmes for biological agents and toxins would be confined to research and development for defensive purposes. Later, the USA and the Soviet Union agreed on a text banning production of biological weapons, which was submitted to the CCD and subsequently to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). The UNGA approved a resolution commending the convention on December 16, 1971. As stated previously, the BMC was opened to all states for signature on April 10, 1972. It entered into force on March 26, 1975, after ratification by US President Gerald Ford.

The BWC Review Conference.

The BWC, which has an unlimited duration, called for only one review, which was held from March 3-21, 1980. A UN Resolution in November 1982 called on the signatories to establish compliance procedures. The Second Review Conference met in Geneva from September 8-26, 1986. This conference, which was generally positive, strengthened the procedures for consultation in the case of compliance concerns. The participating states tried to strengthen the convention by establishing several politically binding confidence building measures (CBMs), including annual declarations of high-containment biological facilities designed for work with dangerous micro-organisms, and reports of unusual disease outbreaks. It also called for a meeting of experts which worked out CBM details from March 31-April 15, 1987, in particular, a call for annual exchanges of data about biological research.

As there is no penalty for failing to file declarations and no central Secretariat urging countries to do so, fewer than half of the states that are party to the BWC have participated in the CBMs. The BWC Third Review Conference was held from September 9-27, 1991. During this conference, it was decided that future review conferences would be held every five years at least. The 1991 review conference recognised the need for stronger measures and mandated the convening of an ad hoc group of government experts (also known as the "verification experts" or VEREX group) to identify and examine potential verification measures from a scientific and technical viewpoint. Eventually, 21 measures were identified and grouped in two categories. Surveillance of scientific publications, data declarations, notifications of activities, remote sensing, and environmental sampling and analysis were included as possible "off-site" measures while possible "on-site" measures included scientific exchanges, visual inspection, interviews, identification of relevant equipment, sampling and analysis and continuous monitoring with cameras or other sensors.32 Four meetings were held by VEREX in Geneva (March 30-April 10, 1992; November 23-December 4, 1992; May 24-June 6, 1993 and its final session from September 13-24, 1993, where it submitted its consensus final report to all BWC member states). In the report, the experts found that because of the dual-use nature of BW-related facilities, equipment and materials, no single measure could fulfill all of the mandated criteria for a stand-alone verification measure. The group, however, concluded that some measures, used singly or in combination, could strengthen the regime by helping to differentiate prohibited from permitted activities, thus reducing ambiguities about issues of compliance.33 In September 1994, a special conference of BWC states parties met at Geneva to consider the VEREX final report and decide on further actions. It was agreed that an ad hoc group would be established to consider appropriate measures, including possible verification measures, and draft proposals to strengthen the convention.34 Between 1995 and 1996, the Ad Hoc Group (AHG) held five meetings but it was unable to complete its mandate of providing draft proposals prior to the Fourth Review Conference which was held from November 25 to December 6, 1996.

Article I, which defines the basic prohibitions, or the "scope" of the convention, Article IV, which addresses national implementation measures, Article V, which deals with the consultative process for problems arising from treaty implementation and Article X, which concerns cooperation among states-parties for peaceful purposes were the key issues at the Fourth Review Conference.35 The conference was unable to achieve a consensus for setting a deadline for the AHG's work, but agreed that it (AHG) should intensify its work so as to try and complete it possibly before the commencement of the Fifth Review Conference which is scheduled for 2001 AD.

Despite the sweeping nature of its prohibitions, the BWC does not include any mechanisms to verify compliance. What is required is a BWC transparency regime involving mandatory declarations of treaty-relevant biological facilities, validated by on-site visits, which would help to deter the use of declared sites for BW production, thereby driving any violations into clandestine facilities and making them more difficult and costly.


The number of countries with biological weapons is rising; the cost of stockpiling of these weapons is small when compared with the cost of achieving nuclear capability, thus making the possession of BW an attractive and viable proposition for those countries and terrorist organisations seeking to develop or obtain the technical and manufacturing expertise to do so. Additionally, acquiring BW is relatively easy as almost all the technologies associated with them are available and used for legitimate purposes. Also defence biological programmes can provide cover for covert offensive BW programmes. These reasons make the production of BW difficult to detect. It is, therefore, imperative that the following preventive measures are taken to slow down and eliminate an arms race in BW—by convincing non-BW states that their security interests are best served by not acquiring it (dissuasion); by attempting to limit a state's ability to obtain BW technologies or devices (denial); by seeking to set limits on or eliminate BW through bilateral or multilateral agreements (in this regard, specifically to create an effective verification regime to strengthen the BWC) and the creation of international norms against proliferation (arms control); and finally, punishing states that pursue acquisition of BW with trade or economic sanctions, publicising companies and countries that assist in the acquisition of BW, and sharing intelligence (international pressure).



1. Strategic Assessment 1996: Instruments of US Power (Washington DC: National Defence University Press, 1996) p.201.

2. Science Applications Inc., Evaluations of Collateral Damage (La Jolla, CA, SAIC: 1976) p.131.

3. Samuel Glasstone and Philip J. Dolan, eds., The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, third edition (Washington DC: US Department of Defence and US Department of Energy, 1987) p.544.

4. US Congress, Office of Technology Assessment, The Effects of Nuclear War (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1979) p.37.

5. Cited in Kathleen C. Bailey, Doomsday Weapons in the Hands of Many: The Arms Control Challenge of the 90s (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991) pp.86-87

6. Jozef Goldblat, Arms Control (London: PRIO: 1994) pp. xxii, xvii.

7. The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey 1996/97 (London: Oxford University Press, 1997) p.33.

8. See Ibid., pp. 36-37.

9. Erhard Geissler, A New Generation of Biological Weapons in Biological and Toxin Weapons Today (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) p.22-23.

10. John Cookson and Judith Nottingham, A Survey of Chemical and Biological Warfare (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969) p.296.

11. Cited in SIPRI Yearbook 1996: Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (London: Oxford University Press, 1996) p.687.

12. International Herald Tribune, November 23, 1994.

13. Source: n.7. p.32.

14. I. Malek, "Biological Weapons", in Steven Rose, ed., CBW: Chemical and Biological Warfare, (Boston: Beacon Press, 1969), p.51.

15. Cookson and Nottingham, n.10, p.269.

16. Cited in SIPRI Yearbook 1994 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994) p.719.

17. US Congress, OTA, Technology against Terrorism : Structuring Security OTA-ISC-511 (Washington DC: January 1992).

18. See J.B. Tucker, "Lessons of Iraq's Biological Warfare Programme," Arms Control, vol.14, no.3, December 1993, pp.229.

19. Under the terms of this 1991 Persian Gulf War Resolution, the United Nations Special Commission on Iraq (UNSCOM) is mandated to identify and eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missile capability and to undertake ongoing monitoring and verification of Iraq's obligations not to re-acquire such capabilities. For the text of the United Nations Security Council S/RES/687 (1991), April 3, 1991, see SIPRI, SIPRI Yearbook 1992 : Armaments, Disarmament and International Security (London: Oxford University Press, 1992) appendix 13A, pp.525-30.

20. Cited in SIPRI Yearbook 1994, n.16, pp.715-716.

21. Jonathan B. Tucker, "Strengthening the Biological Weapons Convention," Arms Control Today, vol.25, no.3, April 1995, p.9.

22. "Burma and Biological Weapons," Jane's Intelligence Review, vol.7, no.11, November 1995, p.518.

23. Cited in SIPRI Yearbook 1996, n.11, p.686.

24. n.7, p.32.

25. CNN News-Item, 0755 hours (IST), July 4, 1997.

26. The Times of India, July 5, 1997.

27. The Arms Control Reporter : A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons and Policy, (Massachusetts: IDDS, 1996) p.701, A1.

28. SIPRI Yearbook 1996, n.11, pp.778-779.

29. The Arms Control Reporter : A Chronicle of Treaties, Negotiations, Proposals, Weapons and Policy, (Massachusetts: IDDS, 1997): p.701, A.6.

30. See FACTFILE; Signatories to the Biological Weapons Convention, Arms Control Today, vol.26, no.10, January-February 1997, pp.28-30.

31. Goldblat, n.6, p.374. In a statement made on the occasion of the convention, India reiterated its understanding that the objective of the convention is to eliminate biological and toxin weapons, thereby excluding completely the possibility of their use, and that the exemption with regard to biological agents or toxins, which would be permitted for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes, would not in any way create a loophole in regard to the production or retention of biological and toxin weapons. Also, any assistance which might be furnished under the terms of the convention would be of a medical or humanitarian nature and in conformity with the UN Charter. The statement was repeated at the time of the deposit of the instrument of ratification.

32. Tucker, n.21, p.10.

33. Ibid.

34. n.27, p.701, A2.

35. For a comprehensive coverage of the Fourth Review Conference, see Graham S. Pearson, "The Fourth BWC Review Conference : An Important Step Forward," Arms Control Today, vol.26, no.10, January-February, 1997, pp.14-18.