A Brief History
Some countries developed research programs in bioterrorism as early as the 1930s. Japan had an offensive biological warfare program and performed human experiments. Many believed Germany was experimenting with biological agents for purposes of war at the same time.
In 1942, the British conducted biological warfare experiments, dropping bombs full of anthrax spores off the coast of Scotland. Their tests proved that anthrax could survive and spread through an explosion and that the spores would be sustained in the soil for decades.
The U.S. responded by starting an offensive biological plan in 1943. It weaponized seven biological agents such as anthrax that could kill or incapacitate humans. The program was renounced by President Nixon in 1969.
The Soviet Union also had a 4,000-person, 30-building facility located in Koltsovo, Novosibirsk. The site had biosafety level 4 laboratories, and botulinum toxin was one of several agents tested.
In October 2001, 22 people developed symptoms and five died from the intentional distribution of letters laced with anthrax. Thousands of panicked people clogged hospital emergency rooms, which revealed the unanticipated logistical problems of diagnosis and treatment of the worried well. Before that anthrax was only an agent of concern for biological warfare but it is now at the top of the bioterrorism list.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are three main categories of biological threat: A, B, and C. Category A is the highest priority, since this class of bugs spreads effortlessly from human to human, resulting in high mortality rates. Included in this category are anthrax (Bacillus anthracis), botulism (Clostridium botulinum toxin), plague (Yersinia pestis), smallpox (Variola major), tularemia (Francisella tularensis), and viral hemorrhagic fevers (e.g., filoviruses like Ebola and Marburg and arenaviruses such as Lassa and Machupo). These represent a major public health concern as they can cause, in addition to death and disability, panic and social disruption.
Category B biological agents are a lower priority than Category A. These control germs spread relatively easily, have moderate morbidity, and exhibit low mortality rates. While they require enhanced diagnostic capability and disease surveillance, they are less threatening than Category A. Category C pathogens are emerging biological agents that are readily available and spread easily but are uncommon. Still, if engineered, their threat potential could increase, pushing them to a higher category.