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Much of what we know about the potential use of microorganisms as biowarfare agents is derived from military research.5,6,11 Such studies began in the United States and other countries during the 1920s, but major testing and production efforts did not commence until World War II. As in the case of the atomic bomb, this effort was driven by the suspicion that enemy states were developing biological weapons and the conclusion that the possession of similar armaments was required to deter their use. In fact, only the Japanese army actually released infectious agents during the war (with little apparent effect), but by its end the United States and Great Britain had established extensive research programs, tested a number of pathogens, and prepared and stockpiled large quantities of Bacillus anthracis. These programs
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did not end with the coming of peace, since suspicion was quickly transferred to states on opposite sides of the iron curtain. By the 1950s both the Soviet Union and the United States and its allies had active biowarfare programs. Military studies focused principally on the preparation and release of aerosolized agents, since this route of attack took advantage of the susceptibility to infection of the immense inner surface of the human respiratory tract and offered the possibility of distributing clouds of invisible microbes across broad areas.6,11 Most organisms selected for potential use in warfare were bacteria, since their ability to grow in simple medium facilitated bulk preparation. However, a number of viruses, including the agents of Rift Valley fever and Venezuelan equine encephalitis, were already recognized to have potential for offensive use, since they had become notorious for causing outbreaks of illness among laboratory workers following centrifuge accidents or other types of airborne release.11,12 Their use as weapons was made possible by the discovery that these and other viruses, such as variola, could be grown to high titer in embryonated eggs. Huge incubators were built in preparation for rapid, large-scale production of viruses, but none were ever stockpiled by the U.S. biowarfare program. Although military research proved that a number of aerosolized microbes could be employed as weapons, it was eventually realized that their use in war would be severely constrained by environmental factors, since adverse winds, rain or snow, rising thermal currents, or other conditions completely beyond the control of military planners could prevent an agent from reaching its intended target. In addition, although the need for a deterrent against enemy bioweapons attacks had been a major justi cation for the American biowarfare program, by the 1960s the growing arsenal of nuclear weapons was more than capable of performing any retaliatory mission. It was therefore concluded that biological weapons served no useful purpose, and in 1969 the United States ended its biowarfare program. However, offensive research allegedly continued on a large scale in the Soviet Union through the early 1990s13 and is believed to be continuing at some level in a number of countries. Although biological weapons were abandoned as impractical by most military forces, they may unfortunately be much better suited to the needs of terrorists. The environmental factors that were a major obstacle to military planning would not be an impediment to a terror attack, since the effects of wind and weather could be avoided, either by carrying pathogens directly to their targets or by releasing them as aerosols in indoor spaces. In addition, terrorist groups may be less interested in attempting to infect a broad target area or causing a large number of deaths than in inducing fear and insecurity through small, unpredictable clandestine attacks. Thus, even if the release of aerosolized Ebola virus into an urban setting, such as a subway station, were to cause only a few cases of disease, such an event might still produce widespread anxiety and extensive social disruption. Countermeasures that would be expected to deter a nation-state from carrying out biological attacks, such as threats of massive retaliation, might be ineffective in dealing with an independent terrorist group or could paradoxically provide an incentive for their use.
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