Bioterrorism, also referred to as biological warfare, is the intentional release of biological agents that threaten to cause disease or death among the human population, food crops and livestocks.

Biological agents are the organisms like bacteria, viruses, fungi, insects or toxins that can kill or disable people, livestock and food crops. These biological agents are usually natural but can be cultivated in laboratories or improvised to cause more harmful effects. The biological agents can be categorised into following categories depending upon their ability to disseminate among the population:

  1. Category A:- This category includes the agents which disseminate easily among the population and poses a risk to national security, as they are transmitted person to person causing high mortality rate. Anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), botulism (Clostridium botulinum), plague, smallpox (Variola major) and viruses like ebola, marburgh, etc. are some of its examples.
  2. Category B:- The agents which can disseminate moderately among the population are included in this category. These agents are moderately morbid and cause comparatively low mortality rates. Brucellosis (Brucella species), epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens, food safety threat (Salmonella species, Escherichia coli), ricin of castor beans (Ricinus communis), cholera (Vibrio cholerae), etc. are some of its examples.
  3. Category C:- This category consists of the emerging pathogens that could be engineered for the mass discrimination in future and have potential in high morbidity and mortality rates and major health impact. Hantavirus, Nipah virus, etc. are its examples.

Transmission of Biological Agents

Biological agents can be spread through air, water, food, from person-to-person contact, infecting animals carry the disease to humans, etc. depending upon their nature, some agents can be spread through bomblets delivered by the aircrafts or use of spray tanks mounted on aircrafts/tall buildings. The agents of anthrax, plague, smallpox, etc. can be converted into aerosols and distributed in large geographical areas.

History of Bioterrorism

  • Bioterrorism is not a new word for the world, it has been in practice since the 14th century. In 1347, Mongol forces were reported to have catapulted plague-infected bodies over the walls of the Black-Sea port of Caffa (now Feodosiya, Ukraine). It is believed that ships from the besieged city returned to Italy with the plague, starting the Black death pandemic that swept through Europe over next four years and killed some 25 million people.
  • In 1763, British troops besieged Fort Pitt (now Pittsburg) during Pontiac’s Rebellion passed blankets infected with smallpox virus to Indians, causing a devastating epidemic among their ranks.
  • During World War I (1914-18), Germany initiated a clandestine program to infect horses and cattles owned by allied armies on both the Western and Eastern fronts.
  • “Rajneeshies” (followers of an exiled Indian self-proclaimed guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh settled on a ranch in Wasco county, Oregon, US) took political control of the town of Antelope in the 1980s, changing its name to Rajneesh. In 1984, to extend their political control throughout the county they attempted to suppress the voters of the town The Dalles. The cult members contaminated the groceries, restaurants, and the water supply in The Dalles with Salmonella bacteria which led to illness of 751 people.
  • During the period between 1990 to 1995, the AUM Shinrikyo sect used biological as well as chemical weapons on targets in Japan. They attempted four attacks using anthrax and six attacks using botulinum toxins at various targets including the US naval base at Yokosuka. However, the attacks were unsuccessful due to lack of mastery in science and technology of biological warfare.
  • Al-Qaeda operatives showed interests in developing and using biological weapons. They operated an anthrax laboratory in Afghanistan prior being overrun by US and Afghan Northern Alliance forces in 2001-02. In 2001, anthrax laden letters were sent to many politicians and prominent individuals in the US, killing 5 people and sending 22 to the hospital while forcing the evacuation of congressional office buildings, offices of New York governor, television network headquarters, and a tabloid newspaper office.

Combating The Threat of Bioterrorism

1. Geneva Gas Protocol

It was the treaty signed in 1925 by most of the world’s countries banning the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare. It was drafted at the Geneva Conference in 1925 to avoid repetition of atrocities committed by belligerents in World War I.

The protocol specifically prohibited the use of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and bacteriological weapons in warfare. However, it did not ban the development, production or stockpiling of such weaponry. Therefore, the protocol was later supplemented by Biological Weapons and Toxins Convention (BWC) in 1972 and Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.

2. Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention

It is the international treaty signed on April 10, 1972 at London, Moscow and Washington D.C. The convention came into force on March 26, 1975. The BWC prohibits the development, production, stockpiling or other method of acquiring microbial or other biological agents or toxins, whatever their origin, method of production or types, in quantities that have no justification for prophylactic, protective or other peaceful purposes.

The treaty also bans any equipment or means of delivery that is designed to use biological agents or toxins for hostile purposes or armed conflicts. Unfortunately, the BWC does not yet contain provisions for verification of members compliance, and there has been evidence of significant cheating by some parties since the treaty went into effect.

India ratified and pledged to abide by its obligations in 2015.

3. Biodefense System

Biodefense refers to the incorporation of the methods of preventing, detecting or managing an attack involving biological weapons. According to Simon 1997, the best way to combat bioterrorism is biodefense i.e., to be prepared to respond to a biological weapon attack. This can be done by:

  • Regular updation and installation of biofense systems.
  • Developing and stockpiling vaccines and medicines for biological weapons to defend the people against pathogens.
  • Bio-surveillance for an efficient response to bioterror strike.
  • Refining diagnostic laboratory capabilities and epidemiology capabilities.
  • Formulating and putting in the standard operating procedures for the medical staff to treat the victims of bioterrorism.
  • Strengthening the BWC to successfully prevent biological weapon programmes.


Bioterrorism is a serious threat to every nation as it poses risk directly to public health, affecting a large human as well as plant and animal population. It is different from other terrorisms like chemical or nuclear or radiological terrorism and the history has shown the devastating results of it all around the world.

Therefore it is important to ensure the timely surveillance, awareness of syndrome from bioterrorism, laboratory diagnostic capabilities, and the ability to communicate critical information through media. Adequate amounts of vaccines and medicines are essential. Proper training of the medical staff to fight bioterrorism will help in minimizing the morbidity and mortality rates.

Along with the health department, coordinated efforts from  other sectors like the intelligence agencies, military and paramilitary forces, law enforcement agencies and civil administration are also required.

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