It is quite astonishing to understand how quickly destroying lives with armaments has evolved to become destroying lives with a biological agent. Yes, Bioterrorism! Bioterrorism is the calculated use of biological agents like viruses, bacteria, or other biological germs that can infect people making them ill, or end up killing them. These biological agents are natural but sometimes they are modified in the lab increasing their ability to cause and spread harmful diseases faster resulting in havoc and pandemic for which no medical treatment is available.

What makes these agents a bioterrorism agent?

“In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves better to their environment.”

-Charles Robert Darwin

Various agents are found in nature which leads to disease but only some of them are the bioterrorism agent. HOW?

The factors are:-

  • the ease of availability
  • the ease of escalation
  • constantly causing death at minute concentrations
  • highly infectious
  • the incubation period should be short and anticipated
  • unidentified/enigmatic target as a whole
  • no medications available at present
  • easy mass production.

There is a story ‘The stolen bacillus’ by HG Wells.The whole story shows how cholera (bacteria causing cholera) is a potential bioterrorism agent and can be misused.


  1. Inhaled /Injected-Botulism, Junin virus, Lassa virus, Anthrax, etc.
  2. Aerosol- Anthrax,etc.
  3. Through animals-Coronavirus, Anthrax, Plague, Ebola virus, Arenavirus, Hantavirus, Nipah virus, Tick-borne, Brucella virus, Encephalitis virus, Yellow fever, etc.
  4. Food-Botulism, Salmonella species,etc.
  5. Contact-Tularaemia, Smallpox, Filovirus, Ebola virus, Coronavirus, Marburg virus, Anthrax,etc.

Why bioterrorism agents? Why not armaments?

With bioterrorism agents, terrorist can spread it in a population destroying lives and livestock, threatening and manipulating the government to agree with their demands.

History-pack of facts

  • In the 6th century B.C., contamination of water supply by fungus Claviceps purpurea (Rye Ergot) by Assyrians against Israelites.
  • The black death(pestilence) Most fatal pandemic recorded yet. End of 75-200 million lives in Kaffa in Afghanistan by Tartararmy in 1346. Plague wars-“The terrifying reality of biological warfare”- Tom mangold
  • Colonists gave smallpox to native Americans via contaminated blankets.
  • Yellow rain- In 1981, Afghanistan encountered Myotoxin (fungal toxins) falling on them by an aircraft that felt like rain popularly known as ‘Yellow rain’.
  • In the US the most striking bioterrorism event was deliberate contamination of restaurant salad bars with Salmonella by a religious commune in Oregon in 1984.
  • The most recent is the attack of Anthrax as a weapon on the American public in 2001 through the mail but the CDC (Centres for Disease Control and prevention) identified and controlled with few losses of life.

Bioterrorism as a legitimate threat

Though many terrorists have been using them none of them succeeded on their own-

  • Contaminating water supply in Chicago in 1970,
  • Food poisoning in Oregon in 1980 by a religion Commune,
  • Stockpiling of Ricin by members of Minnesota patriot council in 1990.

No one succeeded. But if the terrorist will get proper resources, stable environment from the state then one day, the attack would be very devastating. The bioterrorism agent as per their potential for a bioterrorism attack is classified into three categories by CDC :-

 Tier 1 agentsTier 2 agentsTier 3 agents
 Bacillus anthracis (anthrax)AlphavirusesHanta viruses
Francisellatularensis (tularemia)  Eastern and western equine encephalomyelitis viruses (EEE, WEE) Multidrug-resistant tuberculosis
 Variola major (smallpox) Venezuelan equine encephalomyelitis virus (VEE)Nipah virus
 Yersinia pestis (plague) Brucella species (brucellosis)Tickborne encephalitis viruses
 Filo viruses Burkholderia mallei (glanders)Tickborne haemorrhagic fever viruses
Ebola virus (Ebola hemorrhagic fever)Coxiella burnetii (Q fever) Yellow fever
 Marburg virus (Marburg haemorrhagic fever) Epsilon toxin of Clostridium perfringens 
ArenavirusesRicin toxin from Ricinus communis 
 Junin virus (Argentinian haemorrhagic fever) and related virusesStaphylococcal enterotoxin B:
A subset of Category B agents includes pathogens that are food or waterborne.
These pathogens include but are not limited to: 
Cryptosporidium parvum
Escherichia coli O157: H7
Salmonella species
Vibrio cholerae  
 Lassa virus (Lassa fever) 

Anthrax-Tier1 Biological agent

Bacillus anthracis bacteria causing Anthrax is one of the most likely bioterrorism agents because-

  • 1) Easily found anthrax spores in an environment which lasts long.
  • 2) Can be released as powder, sprays, food and water quietly.
  • 3) Cannot be identified and sensed by humans.

Used as a weapon around the world for about a century. In 2001, it was wilfully mailed through US portal system.22 people died in that incident.

Public Health emergency preparedness and response to the attack

Responsibilities of public health emergency are-

  • ➢ Detection of an outbreak
  • ➢ Observation of infectious diseases
  • ➢ Identification of the bioterrorism agents and their mode of Transmission
  • ➢ Developing prevention and control strategies
  • ➢ Ensuring enough laboratory capacity and epidemiologic are very important for effective security systems.

Syndromic surveillance’ is an approach of Investigation where health department staff is assisted by automated data acquisition and generation of alerts, monitor disease and indicate in real-time or time to detect outburst of the disease earlier.

There are five phases of activity to be followed before an incident is an outburst for success responses to a bioterrorism attack

  1. Preparedness phase
  2. Early warning phase
  3. Notification phase
  4. Response phase
  5. Recovery phase

“Not missiles, but microbes”

– Bill Gates

Is SARS-CoV-2(Covid-19) a bioterrorism agent?

Coronavirus Disease 2019 Rotator Graphic for (U.S. Air Force Graphic by Rosario “Charo” Gutierrez)

This is a big question arising among the pandemic that ‘Is the corona virus made in the laboratory by any terrorist group or any country to rule over the world?’ “SARS-CoV-2 is not a laboratory construct or a purposefully manipulated virus”- Journal Nature Medicine. Terrorists are not capable of making such a harmful virus like SARS-CoV-2 without the help of the state. These weaponized viruses which are so advanced that spreads among the large population cannot be made by terrorists. This is only possible if there is a lab escape with the help of the state. Bioterrorism is a legitimate threat in this world. To fight with public health agencies needs to be prepared

  • People need to follow public health agencies rules and regulations.
  • Timely surveillance
  • Awareness of symptoms resulting from bioterrorism
  • Lab diagnostic capacity
  • Epidemiologic investigation capacity
  • Managing such a huge public, their communication and needs are vital
  • Preparing medical staffs at all levels
  • Ensuring an adequate supply of food, water, medicines, vaccines, antitoxins are very essential.

If governments take it seriously — and act strategically — bioterrorism is a catastrophe that never needs to happen.


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