The alarm of bioterrorism sadly returns, to point out the problem of chemical and biological weapons, which could possibly be used by the terrorists of Al Qaeda to commit mass murder. The chemical and biological weapons, such as nuclear, belong to the category of “mass destruction instruments”. With a big difference: toxic gases, lethal viruses and bacteria are easier to produce, easy to carry and less expensive than nuclear weapons. They have been called “the poor man's atomic bomb.” Their effect on the civilian population goes far beyond the purely material and health: create psychosis, fear, paralysis. When in 1995 the members of the sect Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) spread sarin, a nerve gas in the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring a thousand the reaction was the same: panic. There is a thought that scares the sleep and even the days of the Americans and of their allies from 11th September onwards and it is the possibility that the Islamic terrorists will use weapons of mass destruction. The anxieties and forebodings of the Western world have materialised in a city of Florida, Boca Raton, where three employees of a publishing house have been contaminated by the bacterium anthrax. The killer spores are not of natural origin, but produced in the laboratory and have arrived at the offices of American Media Inc., through a letter that contained a “soap powder”. Psychosis bacteriological attack quickly spread among the people. In a few days in the shops of U.S. cities were no longer found gas masks and antibiotics antagonists of anthrax disappeared from the shelves of pharmacies. But the danger is not only from the air: even water and food may be contaminated and infected. The threat is truly global.


The idea of ​​“shoot” virus or bacteria to destroy the enemy is not so modern. The first to use biological weapons, perhaps unconsciously, were our ancestors during medieval period. They took rotting and decomposing carcasses, and catapulted them inside the walls of besieged cities with intended to contaminate the city and the routes and water supply: such as wells and streams, forcing the defenders to surrender. But this was a finding of cause and effect, for they were unaware of pathogens harboured in weapons to cause such effects on the population. It can be said that the first action of germ warfare dates back to 1743, the year in which the “civilised” American settlers distributed blankets contaminated with smallpox virus to some Indians, with the express purpose of making out the entire tribe. More recently, this discovery has been associated with the contemporary scientific thought. Though the study of biological weapons dates back to the twenties, research programs and real development matured between 1930 and 1940, the period during which Britain and the United States begun to fear a biological attack. Britain abandoned its offensive biological weapons programs in the fifties while the United States continued until the end of the sixties, always assuming that you accept the official version that gives them in the process of demobilisation of more than thirty years. According to Gerald Parker, head of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases, at the end of the sixties the U.S. Army possessed plans for the offensive use of seven types of biological agents, including Bacillus anthracis, which causes anthrax, as well as plants that can produce more than six hundred tons of these materials monthly. The programs have been suspended in 1969, under the Nixon presidency, and after three years there was the Biological Weapons Convention. The Biological Weapons Convention signed at Geneva in 1972, would bind on the signatory countries to stop research on chemical and biological weapons, and dismantle arsenals. In fact, however, the Convention is not very binding, there are no sanctions and no country has plans to make it more severe. There is also an objective problem: biological weapons are very difficult to identify simply because any bacterial or viral culture can always be justified by research or pharmaceutical manufacturing.


About bioterrorism and weapons that it uses, to avoid confusion, an important distinction is necessary: bacteriological weapons or biological weapons mean those who use natural toxins and pathogens or biologically modified in the laboratory; instead chemical weapons, are all those devices that adopt chemical substance synthesised in the laboratory. The bacteriological weapons have been renamed “live bombs” because of their biological nature, they are the weapons in vogue in the last century. Their strong point is the fact that they are silent weapons, because it is often difficult to recognise the symptoms of a biological attack within a population. We realise it more often by the rapid growth rate of reported cases than from the symptoms, most of the time the contamination is mistaken for an epidemic and when you understand the true origin by now the extent of the damage done is too high and it is difficult to deal with the situation successfully. A trivial example is that of Anthrax, whose etiologic agent is Bacillus anthracis, better known as anthrax. Anthrax attacks the respiratory system and its symptoms are fever, cough, fatigue, apparently those of a normal rite of influence, but when more serious symptoms occur almost every intervention is in vain. Another strength of biological weapons is the use of etiologic agents (the active ingredient are bacterias) of disease now eradicated and not more widespread in the geographic area affected (such as tuberculosis or smallpox), which means in most cases unpreparedness in dealing with the emergency, dictated primarily by an unavailability of drugs and vaccines, most of the time very low, if not zero. The primary causative agents are bacteria (anthrax, brucellosis, plague), as we have seen, with spores in the form of aerosols can contaminate miles of territory, but they are also ubiquitous viruses, including Ebola and viral encephalitis, and parasites such as Rickettsia, which causes Q fever, but we could go on and on with the list. Despite the banning of chemical and biological weapons imposed by the Geneva Protocol in 1925, many countries seem to continue to secretly investigate the effects and risks in the use of these weapons, most deadly then an atomic bomb, but much easier to find and build, and cost-effective for the poorest countries.



It is an acute infectious disease (also known as Anthrax) caused by the bacterium generator spore, Bacillus anthracis. The spores produce a toxin that can be lethal. According to a study commissioned by the U.S. Congress the release of 100 kg anthrax in aerosol form in the sky over Washington would result in the death of a number between 130 000 (minimum) and 3 million (maximum) people, with consequences similar to those the explosion of a hydrogen bomb.

  • SPREAD: For skin contact, inhalation or ingestion. Very rare transmission from person to person.
  • SYMPTOMS: the disease has an incubation period from two days to 6-8 weeks. Initially, the infection looks like a normal cold, but degenerates into severe breathing difficulties and collapse. The infection caused by ingestion of contaminated food is characterised by intestinal inflammation, vomited blood and severe diarrhoea.
  • OUTLOOK: The majority of those infected died within three days of onset of symptoms.
  • CARE: some specific antibiotics can lead to healing, it should be administered before the onset of symptoms, otherwise the mortality rate reaches 90%. Is there a vaccine against anthrax for military use only. The stocks are very low.


It is a toxin produced by an anaerobic bacterium (Clostridium botulinum). It is the single most powerful poisonous substance known. It is easy to carry and to produce, it require long-term intensive care in affected persons.

  • SPREAD: it enters into the body through food ingestion or through wounds and abrasions.
  • SYMPTOMS: the classic symptoms are blurred or double vision, difficulty in speech and swallowing, dryness in the mouth and muscle soreness. They are the first manifestations of muscle paralysis. Symptoms usually appear between 18 and 36 hours after the ingestion of a contaminated food.
  • OUTLOOK: If no action is taken quickly, respiratory death occurs. The mortality rate has dropped in the last 50 years from 50 to 8 per cent.
  • CARE: the affected person should be assisted by artificial ventilation and subjected to ongoing care for weeks. In this case the infection recedes slowly. There is also an anti-toxin that stops the action of botulinum toxin and should be administered as soon as possible. There are also preventive immunisation treatments.


Among the chemical weapons nerve agents hold a sinister record: high toxicity, ease of dispersion and rapid effect make them simply deadly. They have been produced for the first time in the laboratories of Nazi Germany around the '30s and their name derive from the fact that they affect the nervous system. From the three classic nerve agents (tabun, sarin and soman) in the mid-50s were developed ten times more poisonous agents, labeled with the letter V in the U.S. nomenclature. Up to synthesise VX, a persistent agent, with a lethal dose of hiring low (50 mg per cubic meter).

  • SPREAD: nerve agents may have the form of gas, aerosol or liquid. They enter the body by inhalation, skin contact or contaminated food or food intake.
  • SYMPTOMS: they depend on the amount of substance absorbed. With low doses it has increased salivation, nose bleeds, miosis of the pupil, headaches. With larger quantities occur difficulties in breathing, mucus secretions, stomach cramps and vomiting, involuntary release of urine and feces, tremors. High concentrations cause convulsions, loss of consciousness and respiratory paralysis.
  • OUTLOOK: a few milligrams of nerve gas absorbed by inhalation cause death in a couple of minutes. If the substance enters the body through the skin, the first symptoms occur after 25-30 minutes, but the evolution is then very rapidly and lethal.
  • CARE: There are effective antidotes against nerve agents, but they should be administered immediately. The military have self-inject syringes containing atropine in their individual equipment. With preventive treatments can reduce the effects of the poisoning, but do not cancel them.


This kind of chemical weapon, a bomb capable of spreading among the population targeted bacteria and viruses, it is extremely dangerous, because we realise that it was dropped only after people start to get sick. When it is too late. The main problem then, to defend against these attacks, is to detect the presence of pathogens in a very short time. There are sensors that can detect pathogenic presences in the air, but are currently available only in military areas and would prove to be totally ineffective in the case of vast areas such as those of a city or a nation. That is why all the efforts are aimed at the development of better technology to detect the early warning in time and in very small amounts of air, equal to that inhaled by a single person in a single breath. Together with this technology, it is also developing potential antidotes to these deadly weapons. The government has in fact encouraged the pharmaceutical industry to invest in the development of antidotes to biological weapons, even if there is no market for any such drug


With regard to the defensive research programs in the countries of the Atlantic Alliance news are very few. But one thing is certain: no one believes that, after the abandonment of offensive warfare, and the signature of the Convention, the NATO countries have indeed ceased research. And the difference between “defensive weapons” and “offensive weapons” is purely nominal. To this must be added that, with the boom of biotech companies, the ability to produce biological weapons increased and the production is cheaper. It is well known that the basic products used in the arsenal of Saddam all come from the U.S. market. In the United States simply it is enough to provide the number of a credit card in order to receive by mail the strain of some disease with the excuse of wanting to test their presence in the blood of a sick person, a thing that once could only do public health facilities authorized. But now that the tests are spread all over the world, and they are affordable for any small private laboratory, buy the vibrio by phone is a piece of cake, and a piece of cake especially lucrative for those who trade in this sector. Moreover, any attempt, at least to control what happens in the test tubes and culture plates, has been stop in front of the producers opposition. The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which represents the American pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, strongly opposed to the inspections which “would expose the industry to the risk of losing his or her legitimate trade secrets, necessary for the competitiveness of companies.” In addition there is also a strong concern that controls motivated by the search for biological weapons would be disastrous for public companies relations.


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