Biological Warfare: From History to Current Affairs


Biological warfare or terrorism is the deliberate distribution of biological agents in order to inflict harm on humans or animals or to damage plants. The biological agent used often causes an infectious disease. Throughout history there are examples of armies spreading diseases or using the natural presence of diseases to their own advantage. The most hideous example of biological warfare was the attacks of the Imperial Japanese army on Chinese civilians during the Second World War. Today, with little interstate conflict, organised or individual terrorism is feared to use disease‐causing agents to cause havoc. Defending ourselves against this threat will call on new types of technological ingenuity combining rapid detection of the causing agents with rapid public health response. In this article, examples of biological warfare and terrorism are discussed and current debates on dual‐use research are highlighted.

Key Concepts:

  • Infectious disease research can lead to a dual‐use dilemma.

  • Stronger public health systems might be required for rapid responses against natural as well as deliberate spread of infections.

  • State‐sponsored biological weapon or biodefence research can lead to individual biological terrorism.

  • Terrorists will not sign international treaties banning biological weapons.

  • International scientific collaborations will help in diminishing threats.

  • There will not ever be a 100% guarantee against getting sick from deliberate spread of infectious disease agents.

  • International treaties can help in diminishing threats from weapons of mass destructions; however, they take time, patience and money to implement.

Keywords: biological warfare; biological weapons; infectious disease; bioterrorism; anthrax; smallpox; Biological and Toxin Weapon Convention; influenza; history of infectious diseases; Anthrax letters

Figure 1.

Smallpox. The first infectious disease eradicated by humans. The last smallpox victim was recorded in 1977 in Somalia and the world was declared free of smallpox 3 years later. (a) Poster advertising smallpox vaccination. © Public Domain. (b) Child with massive smallpox infection. © Public Domain. (c) Smallpox victims as depicted by the Nahua people. © Public Domain. (d) A US sailor administers the smallpox vaccine. © Public Domain. (e) The old smallpox hospital of New York City on Roosevelt Island as seen in 2013. Photograph by Dr Leandro Lemgruber, Rockefeller University. © Leandro Lemgruber.

Figure 2.

Rinderpest – the second infectious disease to be eradicated by humans in 2011. (a) Painting depicting rinderpest epidemic in Holland in the eighteenth century. (b) Rinderpest victims in 1896 in South Africa. © Public Domain.

Figure 3.

The Anthrax letters as seen on a reward‐offering poster. © Public Domain.

Figure 4.

A new journal dedicated to a new field of research. © Public Domain.

Figure 5.

Japanese biological warfare. (a) Shiro Ishii, founder of the infamous Unit 731 of the Japanese biological warfare programme in 1932, photographed by Masao Takezawa. © Masao Takezawa. (b) Otozo Yamada, general of the Japanese Imperial army sentenced to 25 years in prison at the Khabarovsk trial for war crimes related to Unit 731. (c) Aerial view (left) and reconstructed building (right) of Unit 731 at Harbin as photographed during the Second World War and in 2002 by Markus Källander, respectively. All images are public domain pictures from Wikipedia. Figure partly taken from Frischknecht ().



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Further Reading

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Miller J , Engelberg S and Broad W (2001) Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Zajtchuk R (1997) Textbook of Military Medicine: Medical Aspects of Chemical and Biological Warfare. Bethesda, MD: Office of the Surgeon General, Department of the Army. Available at:

Web Links

The 2011 movie ‘Contagion’ shows a potential global pandemic caused by a natural infection of an emerging infectious disease agent.

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How to Cite close
Frischknecht, Friedrich(Jan 2014) Biological Warfare: From History to Current Affairs. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0003290.pub3]