Week 6 Preparedness Blog:  Lessons Learned from Bioterrorism during World War I

Week 6 - March 23, 2018

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

Lessons Learned from Bioterrorism during World War I

Biological attacks utilized by Germany during World War I did not require sophisticated laboratories nor extensive scientific expertise relative to what was needed for development and deployment of chemical warfare weapons. Chlorine, Phosgene and Mustard Gas chemical weapons were derived from industrial chemicals and required multiple steps for their production. Chlorine was a by-product of German industrial dye production. Phosgene was developed by French Scientists via knowledge derived from their domestic chemical industry as Mustard Gas was developed by German scientists. The German bioagents of Glanders, Plague and Anthrax were isolated from naturally occurring diseases and only required simplistic culturing, production (growth and reproduction) and extraction before being given to German agents for infecting livestock. Note all three German bioagents: Glanders, Plague and Anthrax were not only infectious and dangerous to livestock, but also to humans plus Glanders can be spread to humans from infected livestock.

The German World War I bio agent attacks demonstrated that achieving access to livestock and crops is much easier than access to military personnel. Biological warfare weapons with their ability to be discreetly and silently deployed, combined with hours to days delays in manifestation of their effects, are uniquely positioned to sow dread and discord in your enemies, while presenting minimal danger to one’s own personnel deploying the bio weapons. Technological advances of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century were enabling for the first-time mass production of bio agents and significant advances in their delivery. Many microorganisms with potential for being biological agents of warfare and terrorism can be isolated from infected animals or from the environment.   During the five years I served as Emergency Officer for the Illinois Department of Public Health, positive results on the Department of Homeland Security BioWatch Airborne Detection System for naturally occurring Tularemia were relatively common; including one outside of Busch Stadium in 2006 before Game 1 of the Baseball World Series.

The horrors of modern warfare during World War I made the victorious Allies determined to not only severely penalize Germany to the point it could never again instigate a war, but also to establish a forum to resolve differences between nations peaceably without armed conflicts. This forum was the brainchild of American President Woodrow Wilson and was called the League of Nations; ironically, the United States Congress, following the prevailing mantra of post war isolationism, refused to authorize American participation. Woodrow Wilson staked his presidency, career, legacy, and ultimately his life on the success of League of Nations and in America joining; collapsing with a stroke in October 1919 during a cross country speaking tour to convince the American People of the importance of United States joining the League of Nations. As a side note, Wilson’s wife Edith became his sole caregiver and is often called America’s First Woman President as she was the Administrator of the Executive Branch of the United States Government from October 1919 thru March 1921 (end of Wilson’s 2nd term) communicating with Wilson’s Cabinet and the Leaders of Congress.

The League of Nations would ultimately fail for many of the same reasons the world would find itself again at war only one generation after World War I and why collaborative unions of nations remain under threat today. 1) Lack of commitment from great powers of the world; 2) Development of nationalism across the continents; 3) Rise of dictatorships in some very significant countries; 4) Lack of enforcement capacities and capabilities; 5) Lack of protection for smaller nation members; 6) Lack of faith of members in the value of the concept.  The League of Nations would be a forerunner of United Nations established Post World War II in 1946. The United States, learning from the Post World War I and the Great Depression eras that isolationism does not work in modern society and in the economy of the 20th Century, would serve as the permanent host of the United Nations in Manhattan New York City.

After World War I, realization grew of the increasing threat of biological warfare, as well as the continued threat of chemical warfare. The Geneva Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare was signed through the League of Nations on June 17, 1925. Though well intentioned, the Geneva Protocol unfortunately did not have provisions allowing for the League of Nations to verify its compliance by member nations. An even more sinister omission was the lack of prohibition on the research and development of biological warfare and chemical warfare weapons. We will see how during the Second World War many countries would develop biological weapons programs and subsequently test and deploy these weapons.


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