Week 2 Preparedness Blog: Bioterrorism History and Source Threats


by David Culp, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Illinois Public Health Association

Bioterrorism History and Source Threats

Bioterrorism is not a new concept.  For centuries, nation states have been investigating and utilizing biological organisms to gain both tactical and strategic advantage over their adversaries through illness and death of soldiers and civilians. During the 20th Century, research into development and deployment of agents of bioterrorism significantly increased for many reasons: (1) Battlefield success of chemical weapons during World War I; (2) Dramatic advances in scientific research and discovery of biological processes; (3) Communicable nature of many biological agents to spread from one infected person to another; (4) Relative environmental stability of many biological agents when deployed; (5) Technological advances allowing for large scale production and weaponization of biological agents of terrorism.

There are indications that during World War II, Tularemia was released by the Soviet Union during the Battle of Stalingrad against German troops; significantly contributing to Russian forces victory in the battle. And there is extensive evidence Japan’s 731 Bioweapons Unit dropped rice coated with plague infected fleas on portions of the Chinese population leading to numerous outbreaks. In the latter 20th Century and early years of the 21st Century, many terrorist organizations investigated using biological weapons to disrupt society and further their aims thru the illness and killing of civilians.

The United States discontinued its offensive bioweapons program at Fort Detrick in 1969, replacing it with USAMRIID (United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases) designated only for prevention of and treatment for exposure to biological agents. Ominously, during the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Soviet Union established and rapidly expanded their Biopreparat program for the research and development of biological weapons. After the 1979 Soviet Sverdlovsk Anthrax production plant accident, which infected close to 100 and killed over 60 Russian citizens, USAMRIID’s Bacteriology Division under the Pentagon’s direction rapidly transitioned in a few weeks from a focus on Legionella to complete concentration on Anthrax.


Ken Alibek held the title of 1st Deputy Director in Biopreparat of the Soviet Bioweapons Program, which consisted of 60,000 (+) scientists and technicians spread over nearly 40 separate facility locations. Dr. Alibek defected to the United States in 1992 after developing increasing doubt regarding the existence of an American Bioweapons Program; especially after participating in a site visit to USAMRIID in 1991. I was a host military technician during Soviet Bioweapons Scientists’ USAMRIID Site Visit. The Soviet Scientists appeared disinterested and almost bored during their tour of our Bacteriology Division Facilities; particularly our Level 3 Biocontainment Laboratories, asking very few questions and exhibiting the demeanor of individuals wanting to quickly complete a site visit they were finding of little value.

In the early 1990’s with the breakup of the Soviet Union and discontinuation of their bioweapons program these same highly advanced and trained scientists found themselves without employment. One might legitimately ask: Where are all these scientists today? Where is this experience, knowledge and expertise?   Many nation states, especially those hostile to the United States will provide lucrative compensation packages to skilled bioweapons scientists.

I met earlier this month with a former American government technical liaison, who was a coordinator in a program assisting transition of former Biopreparat Scientists into domestic programs or private sector employment, rather than in support of another nation’s bioweapons program. The coordinator indicated the full scope and extent of Soviet Biopreparat Bioterrorism Offensive Program not only greatly dwarfed the former American Program of the 1940’s thru the 1960’s, but also that of any other nation state; especially in the number of highly experienced and trained managers, scientists and staff. The sheer number size of participants in Biopreparat makes it impossible to know the whereabouts of all 60,000 (+) former staff.  

The ability of bioweapons to cause disease and devastation, along with severely impacting the fabric of society thru fear and panic, will ensure bioterrorism remains an ever-present threat. Al-Qaeda explored mechanisms for development and deployment of bioweapons and the Aum Shinrikyo Cult carried out a Sarin Gas attack on Tokyo in 1995, only after attempting and failing to successfully utilize Anthrax in 1993.

In the 21st Century, significant increases in molecular biological techniques for alterations of biological organisms’ DNA has brought forth the ability to substantially enhance the virulence (ability to infect and cause disease) of biological agents. Even to potentially combine the deadly attributes of two or more biological agents into a super-agent of bioterrorism. Imagine an organism with the environmental stability and deadly infectivity of anthrax spores, combined with the person to person transmission capabilities of plague.


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