What makes biological weapons so dangerous, and does Russia have them?
The weapons are banned, but the ban is poorly policed
VLADIMIR PUTIN’S forces have committed many atrocities in their invasion of Ukraine. Some fear there is worse to come. America has warned that Mr Putin may be considering the use of biological and chemical weapons. On March 23rd, ahead of a NATO summit, Jens Stoltenberg, the alliance’s secretary-general, said he expected its members to provide “equipment to help Ukraine protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats”. The use of chemical weapons would be nothing new for Russia: it has previously used them in attempted assassinations, and the Syrian regime that it backs has used sarin gas. The use of biological weapons, though, would be novel—and potentially more deadly. What is the difference between biological and chemical weapons, and why are the former so troubling?
Chemical weapons, as the name suggests, involve the use of toxic chemicals to harm an enemy. Biological weapons specifically involve the use of living organisms, although some expand the definition to include the toxins such organisms can produce. Using living things as a weapon has a long history. The Ancient Greeks are thought to have put animal corpses in enemies’ wells, the bacteria poisoning the water. As biotechnology developed, so did weapons. During the first world war, German forces tried to infect Allied livestock with anthrax and glanders, a disease that primarily affects horses. In the second world war, Japan bombed China with fleas carrying the bubonic plague. Both America and the Soviet Union experimented with anthrax, which can kill people when inhaled. Russia was reportedly developing smallpox-based weapons as late as 1988.
These weapons could be very dangerous. Models suggest a kilogram of anthrax, dropped on a city, could kill 100,000 people. Agricultural weapons could wipe out a country’s food supply and cripple its economy. And infectious pathogens, such as smallpox or coronaviruses, can quickly take on a “life of their own”, says Filippa Lentzos, a biosecurity researcher at King’s College London. If a pathogen was engineered to be particularly virulent and lethal, it could kill millions of people across the globe. Researchers at Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute think such a weapon could even lead to human extinction.
Weak international oversight exacerbates the danger. Although the UN’s Biological Weapons Convention bans the development or use of the weapons, there is no way to verify if countries are complying. Only three people work on the convention full-time, with a budget of just $1.5m a year. And it does not have a built-in mechanism for investigating the weapons’ use: only the UN secretary-general has the authority to investigate. Russia has recently tried to undermine even that, suggesting that the security council (which Russia has veto power over) should be responsible instead.
America has not presented any evidence supporting its claims that Russia is developing biological weapons. But it would not be surprising if it were true. Boris Yeltsin, a former Russian president, admitted that his country once had a biological weapons programme, and researchers suspect Russia holds onto the pathogens it developed then. But while some evidence suggests a biological weapons programme still exists, it is unclear how competent it is. Gigi Gronvall, of the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, says that Russia’s civilian life-sciences industry lags far behind other countries. The country does not appear to have the expertise needed for advanced biotechnology. Even if it does have such weapons, the extreme danger the worst kinds pose might be a disincentive against their use. Infectious pathogens do not respect borders, Ms Lentzos points out. If one were used in Ukraine, it could easily spread to Russia. The threat of international repercussions looms large, too. As a result, both Ms Lentzos and Ms Gronvall think Russia is more likely to use chemical weapons than biological ones. That is scant consolation. Even conventional weapons have already caused far too much suffering.
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