The Greatest Biological Threats To civilisation


Photo: CDC/ Amanda Moore, MT; Todd Parker, PhD; Audra Marsh

With recent concerns over the bird flu virus being used by terrorist’s to make a bioweopen, we took a look at other biological threat agents in a list compiled by the Federation of American Scientists. We lay out how fatal these potential bioweapons are, what they would do to the population and how a potential bioterrorist would go about spreading them.

[WARNING: some of these images are graphic].


Fatality Rate: 80%

Anthrax, caused by Bacillus Anthracis, is a potentially dangerous biological weapon, because the fatality rate is so high and the disease can be distributed very easily.

The FAS reports that inhalation anthrax, when the anthrax spores are inhaled, would lead to the death of 80 per cent of the exposed population if used in a biological attack. Even scarier is this summation, '100 kilograms of anthrax, released from a low-flying aircraft over a large city on a clear, calm night, could kill one to three million people.'

Anthrax is also hard to diagnose, because it has symptoms similar to the common cold such as fever and fatigue, which would make it very hard to initially identify a widespread Anthrax outbreak.

Vaccines are available for some forms of Anthrax, however they are not guaranteed to work if there is high exposure.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality Rate: 5%

Botulism or Botulinum Toxin is caused by the toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum and causes paralysis.

Symptoms of Botulism begin with slurred speech and blurred vision and progress to limb paralysis eventually culminating in the paralysis of the diaphragm.

The disease could be used as a weapon through a water source or the air, but doing the latter is very difficult. Because of modern advances, fatalities in an attack are estimated at under 5 per cent and preliminary antitoxins effectively protect 90 per cent of individuals.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality Rate: 6%

Brucellosis is a disease contracted from a various number of bacteria with non-specific symptoms such as chills, headache and anorexia.

This disease is rarely contracted by humans in nature, but has been considered as bioweapon for a long time and would be expected to be transmitted in an aerosol form.

Although the fatality rate is low, it is very hard to cure Brucellosis even with antibiotics and it frequently becomes chronic.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality Rate: 50-60% (if untreated)

Cholera is the product of Vibrio cholera and causes severe diarrhoea, which can be fatal due to dehydration or shock.

If used as a biological weapon cholera would probably be used as a water source contaminate.

The treatment for cholera generally focuses on rehydrating the patient, but antibiotics are also used to reduce diarrhoea. If treatment is received early enough, the fatality rate is very low.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Clostridium Perfringens Toxin

Fatality Rate: unclear for bioweapon usage

Clostridium Perfringens Toxin is a bacterium that can cause gas gangrene, a dangerous syndrome with intense swelling as a foul smelling gas begins to fill the soft tissue.

Although C. perfringens could be used as weapon through aerosols it is more likely it would be used to infect a water source.

There is no set treatment for C. perfringens, but antibiotics are effective if used at early onset.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Crimean-Congo Hemorrhagic Fever

Fatality: 15-30%

CCHF is a viral disease that is not very contagious human-to-human and would be delivered through aerosols if utilized as biological weapon.

The virus begins with chills and sever headaches and progresses to fatal hemorrhages, coma and shock. Death occurs in the second week after virus acquisition and even survivors often face prolonged dizziness, hair loss and general weakness.

There is no safe vaccine for humans and treatment for CCHF is full of uncertainties.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality Rate: Unknown in bioweapon form

Saxitoxin is a neurotoxin that could infect a population through aerosols or through water source contamination.

Saxitoxin is frightening because the symptoms occur almost immediately and include numbness of the fingers, lips and tongue leading to respiratory distress and paralysis 2-12 hours after the victim is intoxicated.

Research is speculative, but it is thought that if Saxitoxin was utilized in aerosol form, death could occur in minutes.

Treatment for saxitoxin would be typical of other poisons, but would be difficult.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Ebola Hemorhaggic Fever

Fatality: 50-90%

The ebolavirus is highly feared as a potential bioweapon, because not only is its fatality rate so high it is also contagious from person-to-person.

Ebola begins with fever and then leads to rash, limited kidney function and both internal and external bleeding.

As the FAS puts it, Ebola freaks everyone out because it has 'a high fatality rate, a low infectious dose, no known effective vaccine or treatment, and would cause public and healthcare worker panic.'

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Staphylococcal Enterotoxin B

Fatality Rate: low

SEB naturally causes food poisoning but if used as an aerosol weapon could seriously attack the human respiratory system.

SEB systems include fever, chest pain and gastrointestinal problems and can lead to death if a person inhales a large dose of the toxin.

There is currently no vaccine or antitoxin available for humans.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality Rate: 50-90%

Melioidosis is caused by the bacterium Burkholderia pseudomallei and would be delivered through aerosols if used as a biological weapon.

Melioidosis can infect many different parts of the body, can turn into a chronic form and leads to fever, pneumonia and skin infections.

Numerous antibiotic regiments have been successfully used to cure the disease, although no vaccines are known.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality: 50-100%

The historically terrifying plague could be used a biological weapon in its bubonic form through the spreading of infected fleas or in the pneumonic type through aerosols.

Bubonic plague terrorizes the lymphatic nerves and without treatment over 50 per cent of those infected would die. Pneumonic plague leads to respiratory failure and circulatory collapse and would kill all those infected if left untreated.

Antibiotic courses have been successful for both forms, although only a vaccine for bubonic plague is known.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Q Fever

Fatality Rate: 1-3%

Q fever is caused by Coxiella burnetii and would probably be distributed through aerosols if used as a biological weapon.

Q fever usually causes a cough, pneumonia and chest pain, but those infected are expected to recover uneventfully.

Antibiotics and vaccines are available for Q fever.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality Rate: 2-6%

Ricin is a protein from the seed of the castor plant and is feared as a biological weapon because it is widely available throughout the world.

The toxin causes gastrointestinal problems, seizures and damage to the central nervous system. Death can occur between the third and fifth day.

Ricin is not easily made into a biological weapon, but can be potentially dangerous because no vaccinations or antitoxins currently exist.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Rift Valley Fever

Fatality: 1%

The RVF virus would probably be transported through aerosols in a biological attack and lead to a number of symptoms including fever, headache and liver abnormalities.

Death rate for humans is very low, but is significantly higher for livestock.

No vaccines exist and there is no set treatment for the virus.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality: 15-30%

Although the smallpox virus, Variola major, was eradicated from the world (with the exception of two laboratories) in 1979, smallpox is highly feared as a potential biological weapon in aerosol form or through infected fabrics.

Smallpox leads to severe cold like symptoms and presents itself as scabs on those infected.

The virus is feared as a bioweapon because it is extremely contagious, has a low infectious dose and can survive outside of a host for a relatively long time.

Although a vaccine exists, most of the population is not vaccinated and no specific treatment is available.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Trichothecene Mycotoxin

Fatality Rate: 10-20% (if ingested)

Trichothecene mycotoxin are a large group of poisons produced by fungi and have been allegedly used as bioweapons in an aerosol form.

The toxins can cause weight loss, vomiting, skin inflammation and even death.

Also known as 'yellow rain', there have been alleged usages as a bioweapon in Laos, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

If caught early enough, even simple treatment for these toxins can be very effective.

Source: Federation of American Scientists


Fatality Rate: 2%

Despite its low fatality rate, tularemia is extremely dangerous because it is caused by 'the most infectious pathogenic bacteria known to man, Francisella tularensis.'

Tularemia has a very low dose required for infection, can be made into aerosol form and can be long lasting.

If untreated, Tularemia can last for months and cause fever, weakness and respiratory problems.

There are both antibiotics and a vaccine for tularemia.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

Venezuelan Equine Encephalitis

Fatality: <1%

VEE is a group of eight distinct viruses that could be distributed via aerosols as a bioweapon. Human-to-human transmission has not been seen but it is thought that an epidemic could occur, because mosquito's would pass on the disease between humans.

VEE causes sever flu like symptoms in humans such as fatigue and fever, with rare cases developing into nervous system infections.

Vaccines are being developed, but most people return to full health after 1-2 weeks regardless.

Source: Federation of American Scientists

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