Biological warfare Portal


Biological warfare (BW)—also known as germ warfare—is the use of biological toxins or infectious agents such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi with the intent to kill or incapacitate humans, animals or plants as an act of war. Biological weapons (often termed "bio-weapons", "biological threat agents", or "bio-agents") are living organisms or replicating entities (viruses, which are not universally considered "alive") that reproduce or replicate within their host victims. Entomological (insect) warfare is also considered a type of biological weapon. This type of warfare is distinct from nuclear warfare and chemical warfare, which together with biological warfare make up NBC, the military initialism for nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare using weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). None of these are considered conventional weapons, which are deployed primarily for their explosive, kinetic, or incendiary potential.

Biological weapons may be employed in various ways to gain a strategic or tactical advantage over the enemy, either by threats or by actual deployments. Like some chemical weapons, biological weapons may also be useful as area denial weapons. These agents may be lethal or non-lethal, and may be targeted against a single individual, a group of people, or even an entire population. They may be developed, acquired, stockpiled or deployed by nation states or by non-national groups. In the latter case, or if a nation-state uses it clandestinely, it may also be considered bioterrorism.

Biological warfare and chemical warfare overlap to an extent, as the use of toxins produced by some living organisms is considered under the provisions of both the Biological Weapons Convention and the Chemical Weapons Convention. Toxins and psychochemical weapons are often referred to as midspectrum agents. Unlike bioweapons, these midspectrum agents do not reproduce in their host and are typically characterized by shorter incubation periods.

The use of biological weapons is prohibited under customary international humanitarian law, as well as a variety of international treaties. The use of biological agents in armed conflict is a war crime.

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1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack
The 1984 Rajneeshee bioterror attack was the food poisoning of more than 750 individuals in The Dalles, Oregon, United States through the deliberate contamination of salad bars at ten local restaurants with salmonella. A leading group of followers of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (now known as Osho) had hoped to incapacitate the voting population of the city so that their own candidates would win the 1984 Wasco County elections. The incident was the first bioterrorism attack in the United States, and the single largest bioterrorist attack in United States history. The attack is one of only two confirmed terrorist uses of biological weapons to harm humans. Having previously gained political control of Antelope, Oregon, Rajneesh's followers based in nearby Rajneeshpuram sought election to two of the three seats on the Wasco County Circuit Court which were up for election in November 1984. Fearing they would not gain enough votes, Rajneeshpuram officials decided to incapacitate voters in The Dalles, the largest population center in Wasco County. The chosen biological agent was Salmonella enterica Typhimurium, which was first delivered through glasses of water to two county commissioners, and then delivered on a larger scale at salad bars and in salad dressing. Seven hundred and fifty-one people contracted salmonellosis as a result of the attack, of whom 45 were hospitalized. There were no fatalities. Oregon Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer set up an interagency task force between the Oregon State Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and executed search warrants in Rajneeshpuram. A sample of bacteria matching the contaminant that had sickened the town residents was found in a Rajneeshpuram medical laboratory. Two leading Rajneeshpuram officials were indicted and served 29 months in a minimum-security federal prison.

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Site of "Unit 731"of the Japanese Army that Invaded China
Credit: Markus Källander

Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II. It was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel.

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The reconstructed 1918 influenza virus
A virus is a microscopic infectious agent that can reproduce only inside a host cell. Viruses infect all types of organisms: from animals and plants, to bacteria and archaea. Since the initial discovery of tobacco mosaic virus by Martinus Beijerinck in 1898, more than 5,000 types of virus have been described in detail, although most types of virus remain undiscovered. Viruses are ubiquitous, as they are found in almost every ecosystem on Earth, and are the most abundant type of biological entity on the planet. The study of viruses is known as virology, and is a branch of microbiology. Viruses consist of two or three parts: all viruses have genes made from either DNA or RNA, long molecules that carry genetic information; all have a protein coat that protects these genes; and some have an envelope of fat that surrounds them when they are outside a cell. The origins of viruses in the evolutionary history of life are unclear. Viruses spread in many ways; plant viruses are often transmitted from plant to plant by insects that feed on sap, such as aphids, while animal viruses can be carried by blood-sucking insects. These disease-bearing organisms are known as vectors. Not all viruses cause disease, as many viruses reproduce without causing any obvious harm to the infected organism. Antiviral drugs have been developed to treat both life-threatening and more minor infections.

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Magnaporthe grisea

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Jane Harman
The same advances in biotechnology that help save lives, can also be used to develop dangerous biological agents and toxins that can take lives. The new global information infrastructure that is now the backbone of our economy can be used to spread knowledge of how to create and disperse biological weapons. It is more important than ever that the U.S. government be able to track and control the dangerous materials that can be used to construct these weapons.

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