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Biological Weapons: Could Smallpox Be Used as a Weapon?

Updated on January 20, 2016

History of Biological Weapons

The study of human history shows the use of biological weapons by men since the dawn of civilization, however, the nature of biological weapons kept on changing from time to time. For example, during ancient days, people used to contaminate the water resources of enemies with animal carcasses and filth. Another tactic of that time was to allow the enemies to take refuge in an area, which is endemic for an infectious agent, so that the enemy force becomes infected. Live serpents were used by Carthaginian leader, Hannibal, during the naval battle to create chaos and win the battle. Due to many promising discoveries in the area of microbiology, by Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch, the choice of the biological weapons became more designed on a rational basis. The Germans were the first ones to use both biological and chemical weapons for mass destructions during the First World War. They used anthrax to infect the animals.

Use of Smallpox as Biological Weapon

The infectious agent small pox was used as a biological weapon during the French and Indian Wars, (1754 to 1767). This is considered to be one of the most serious bioterrorist threats. Smallpox-infected blankets and handkerchiefs were used to spread the disease. These blankets were distributed to North American Indians by British forces. This led to an outbreak of the small pox epidemic, claiming the lives of at least 50% of the people. This variola was developed as an aerosol biological weapon by Soviet Union in the 1980s.

The Scary Small Pox


Factors Facilitating the Use of Small Pox as a Biological Weapon

The disease, small pox, had shown devastating effects on mankind for centuries together. The factors which facilitate the use of small pox as a biological weapon include:

  • The transmission of the disease from one person to another takes place in a fast and easy manner.
  • It leads to high mortality.
  • Apart from vaccination, there is no widely accepted or licensed treatment procedure for this disease.
  • Small pox is relatively stable as an aerosol.
  • Since small pox has been declared to be eradicated, the routine immunization against this disease has been reduced in the United States since 1972 and in all other countries since 1983. As a result, most of the present population is either not vaccinated to this disease or have been vaccinated long ago.
  • This agent is highly infectious even in small doses.

Various organisms have been classified into three categories, based on their potency to be used as biological weapons, by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta. According to them small pox has been listed into category A which contains organisms which are easily disseminated and transmitted from one person to another and cause high mortality.

Small pox had been a major threat claiming the lives of large number of people until Edward Jenner demonstrated that inoculation with cowpox provided protection against smallpox in 1796. The process of vaccination had greatly reduced the threat of this disease. This disease can be transmitted from an infected person through respiratory droplets of through body fluids. This disease shows no signs and symptoms during the time of exposure, as the incubation period required for this agent is 7-17 days. If a person is diagnosed with this disease, they have to be isolated to prevent the spread of this disease. It is difficult to take such precautions during a situation of war. Clinical manifestations of this disease and severity of this disease can be reduced by post exposure vaccinations. The secondary effects are reduced by antibiotic therapy.


Even though Small pox virus is considered to be eradicated since 1980, it is still a potential agent of bio-terrorism. After the successful eradication of Small pox, WHO expert committee recommended to preserve the stocks of this virus only in two laboratories- the Institute of Virus Preparations in Moscow, Russia, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia. However, it is suspected that the stocks of this virus have been preserved in other areas also. With increasing incidences of terrorist attacks, the chances of the use of small pox as biological weapon is further heightened. To meet such emergency situation, every country should possess adequate stockpile of vaccine and health care professionals should be trained to meet such a situation.


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