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Wednesday, 25 July, 2001, 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK
Q&A: Germ warfare
q and a
BBC News Online answers key questions about biological warfare.

What are germ weapons?

Biological or germ weapons are living organisms adapted for military use and intended to cause diseases or death in human, animal, or plant life.

They tend to be agents made up of organisms which are highly contagious and rely on this and their ability to reproduce to achieve their potentially devastating impact on a target.

What germs are involved and how are they delivered?

There are a wide range of techniques and agents that can be used in germ warfare.

Diseases which could be spread among an enemy include anthrax, forms of plague, smallpox, yellow fever, forms of Ebola and botulism. A biological agent can come in several forms, including a bacteria, fungus, virus or toxin.

Even very small quantities of an agent can cause very painful death. It has been estimated that a few grams of some viruses, if distributed effectively, could kill millions. There are also concerns that developments in genetic science could be used to make these weapons both more virulent and more difficult to combat.

The most likely way to deliver biological weapons would be in the air, using some form of aerosol delivered by a missile, aircraft, or shell. There is growing concern that terrorist groups might resort to such weapons, and could use them to contaminate food and water supplies. In all cases, though, the effective deployment of such weapons is difficult.

Have they ever been used?

Historically, attempts have been made to spread disease among the soldiers or population of an enemy.

During the 14th Century for example, armies besieging a city might have catapulted plague-infected corpses over the city walls. There are also accounts of Europeans knowingly spreading smallpox or measles when trading with native Americans during the 17th and 18th Centuries.

In the 20th Century many nations have conducted research to develop suitable military biological agents and there have been numerous allegations of their use.

German forces are believed to have used them in World War I. During World War II the Japan used biological weapons against China and experimented on prisoners or war with germ agents.

There have been persistent but unproven allegations that the US military used biological weapons against the Korean and Chinese armies during the 1950-53 Korean War. The Soviet Union is alleged to have used germ agents in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The Iraqi army is believed to have used germ and chemical agents 1987-88 during a campaign against the Iraqi Kurds. In the 1990s five hidden germ warfare laboratories and stockpiles of anthrax, botulism, and gas gangrene bacteria were discovered in Iraq.

British experiments with anthrax led to the contamination of the Scottish island of Gruinard, which has only recently been declared free of the organism.

Which countries have them?

About a dozen countries are thought to by western analysts to have clandestine biological weapons programmes. Among those who have ratified the Biological Weapons convention, they are China, Cuba, Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Russia. Others about whom there are suspicions are North Korea, Egypt, Syria, Israel, and Taiwan.

The US, UK, and France have decommissioned their offensive biological weapons capability, but retain a defensive and research capability in this area.

Are they a threat?

Along with chemical weapons, biological weapons have been described as "the poor man's atom bomb". They strike fear in the hearts and minds of soldiers and military planners because of their potentially devastating effects, the fact that they can cause a particularly unpleasant death, and the fact that they are very difficult to defend against. The other great concern is that they are indiscriminate.

For that reason there have been growing concerns about their use by terrorist groups against civilian populations. It is thought, for example, that the Aum Shinrikyo sect in Japan was experimenting with such weapons.

Having said all that, it is still very difficult to create really effective biological weapons and to deploy them. And for that reason some analysts regard the threat from them as more theoretical than actual.

Who signed up to the 1972 treaty?

The Biological Weapons Convention has been signed and ratified by 143 countries. It bans the production, deployment, possession and use of such agents.

The convention was agreed in the early days of modern multilateral arms control. There were no policing or verification provisions because, in the depths of the Cold War, it was thought that there was little likelihood of getting agreement on policing anyway, and at the time biological warfare did not receive the same priority as superpower nuclear arms control.

But concern about Iraqi biological weapons programmes placed this issue much higher up the international list of priorities. Also the fact that Russia admitted that, in the early 1990s, the Soviet Union had built up huge biological weapons stockpiles, despite being one of the depository powers of the convention.

Why is the US now backing out of attempts to enforce the 1972 treaty on chemical and biological weapons?

The US says it still fully supports the treaty, and efforts to make it more effective. It just believes that the current protocol is unworkable.

Biological weapons are a particularly difficult problem because they are so easy to hide. The new protocol would attempt to balance the need for an effective inspection system with the desire of many countries to protect legitimate pharmaceutical industries and biotechnology installations.

Washington says the protocol does not improve its national security because it will not be able to stop determined cheaters, while at the same time it can be used by others to spy on its commercial secrets. It says developments in biotechnology need new thinking in terms of policing.

There are reports that it wants to propose curbs on biotechnology exports, for example. But it has yet to come up with detailed alternative proposals. And most of its main allies argue that, while the protocol will not be perfect, it is worth pursuing.

BBC defence analyst Nick Childs says that despite its protestations to the contrary, the administration's position in these negotiations has fuelled suspicions that it is deeply sceptical about the value of a whole range of international accords, whether on arms control or the environment.

See also:

25 Jul 01 | Americas
US rejects germ warfare plan
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