Despite public fear about the potential use of biological weapons containing germs for diseases like anthrax or smallpox, such weapons never have been considered major arms by military strategists, Senior Fellow Jeanne Guillemin told a colloquium at MIT's Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology on Oct. 22.
"I'm not sure biological weapons are on par with nuclear weapons," said Guillemin, a professor of sociology at Boston College. "There was a debate after the war [World War II] about whether biological weapons are weapons of mass destruction. I think we should continue this debate."
At the session, titled "Anthrax, Smallpox, and the Invention of the 'Large Area Concept' in the History of Biological Weapons," Guillemin explained that the large area concept developed during the Cold War involved targeting cities and industries, with the major impact on civilian populations.
"Biological weapons are more dangerous to civilians than to soldiers," she said, noting that soldiers are vaccinated, trained and carry face masks and other protective gear.
Biological weapons - which could contain germs that cause diseases such as anthrax, smallpox, brucellosis or tularemia - are not effective tactical military weapons. They do not immediately harm enemy soldiers on the battlefield, or destroy artillery, tanks or munitions supplies.
And each germ has its drawbacks. Smallpox, for example, is highly contagious, so it could harm friendly soldiers. Anthrax is not contagious, but if it gets in the soil for long periods of time, it can kill cattle and other animals.
In addition, the efficacy of biological weapons hinges on several factors, including how many germs survive the explosion of the small bomb in which they are contained, whether the wind is blowing in the correct direction and strongly enough to carry the germs over a target, what constitutes a lethal dose, and how many people will get infected or die. Depending on the germ, as few as 1 to 4 percent of the exposed population may get infected, and estimates of mortality rates vary.
"If the wind is blowing one way you have a weapon. If not, you don't," said Guillemin.
Biological weapons date back to the Middle Ages when plague-ridden bodies were catapulted into castles. In more recent history, during World War II the United Kingdom took a lead role in inventing the first major biological weapons program, putting anthrax and other pathogens into bombs and sprays. The incentive for this program, later shown to be unfounded, was the fear that the Germans were embarked on this same path.
"The British coined the large area concept," Guillemin said. "Even before that, U.S. scientists realized that their biological weapons program would be shut down unless they could try to match the scale of nuclear weapons."
Until the U.S. offensive program ended in 1969, she said, hundreds of laboratory and field tests were conducted to perfect germ agents for large-scale attacks on cities. In the 1970s, in secret defiance of the 1972 Biological Weapons Convention, the U.S.S.R. created a program on the same - if not greater - scale, Guillemin said.
Guillemin was a member of a team of scientists who visited the former Soviet Union in 1992 to interview the families of persons who had died in the 1979 anthrax epidemic in the city of Sverdlovsk. At first, the Soviets blamed the deaths on infected meat, but on the basis of her epidemiological work, an aerosol emission from a nearby secret military facility proved to be the source of the outbreak, the largest of anthrax inhalation in recorded history.
An estimated 68 of 5,000 persons exposed died from the 2-3 grams of anthrax affecting the area. This research, published in Science in 1994, provided the first evidence that humans could come down with anthrax as long as six weeks after inhaling the dangerous spores. Consequently, in last year's anthrax postal attacks, persons who had been exposed took antibiotics for as long as three months.
Guillemin's book, "Anthrax: The Investigation of a Deadly Outbreak," published by the University of California Press in 1999, chronicles how the mystery of the Sverdlovsk epidemic was solved.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 30, 2002.